The Rise of Online Learning: Why We Should All Take Notice

The results are in!

Online learning opportunities being offered in K-12 public schools is on the rise nationwide. To this point, there have been several challenges facing research focusing on online learning in the K-12 sector of education.  Lack of data, clear nomenclature, and the explosion of school choice as well as the proliferation of technology, have all played a role in the slow development of studies focusing on the growth of online learning.  Despite these challenges, there is an increasing body of work that suggests a clear rise in the volume of students engaging in coursework in an online environment.  For the sake of conversation, this article considers online learning any course in which the primary delivery of content occurs on an online platform.  The purpose of this definition is to eliminate the inclusion of blended learning environments, so as to narrow the focus to courses where content delivery is online versus a face to face environment.

One particular study that has been conducted year over year with a focus on online learning in education has been conducted by the Babson Survey Group.  This survey of 2,800 Chief Academic Officers (CAO) revealed once again that distance learning has and will continue to serve as a critical part of the long-term academic strategy amongst most (70.8%) higher education institutions.  Though large-scale studies of the PreK-12 scene are few and far between, the Babson Survey group conducted a survey amongst a diverse group of 441 high school administrators and found that 80% of these administrators they have at least one student taking courses fully online.

Over the last two years, I have served as my district’s Virtual Learning Coordinator whose primary responsibilities for the development and day to day operations of our virtual learning program. The virtual learning program in our district has expanded considerably over the past two years in terms of the variety of courses being offered to our students, the specific function the course serves, as well as the level of the programming offered.  Accordingly, we have expanded to include credit recovery, Advanced Placement, enrichment based, remedial,

As a district, our need for virtual learning opportunities quickly became a priority for several different reasons, the most pressing of which, was a large percentage of our student population was leaving the district for cyber charter schools . Pennsylvania has fairly liberal legislation with regards to student populations, meaning that students have a lot of freedom in choice of their learning institutions.  This legislation opened the gateway for many students to pursue alternative learning environments, something most public school districts were not prepared for.  As a result, many types of charters and specifically cyber charters found a niche market that was relatively untapped and saw massive enrollment spikes promising individualized and personalized online instruction.  Though not all of these cyber charters delivered on this message, they won considerable market share that virtual learning won in the mid-2000’s.  In light of the expanding options available to students of Pennsylvania, many schools are reevaluating what defines the school experience.  This rise in online learning is not limited to Pennsylvania.  A study conducted by the Babson study group revealed statistics that point to a nearly 12 fold increase in the number of students taking online courses between 2001 and 2007.  Estimates at that point tallied nearly a million students across the US taking online courses as a part of their K-12 studies.

Given the massive growth of the world wide web, it is reasonable to suspect that online learning opportunities will grow in parallel especially as the cost of entry for teachers and learners continues to diminish with each passing year. Below I have listed some reasons why it is imperative that we begin to incorporate and promote online learning opportunities for our students.

  1. Future Ready Skills-   Being a life long learner is a critical skill for all of our students today.  As the needs of our world’s economy changes, so do the skills needed to be an active participant.  Online learning will form an important piece of those skill sets in many different sectors.  Private sector  organizations have been, for many years, utilizing the abilities of online learning to help prepare their respective workforces with essential skills and knowledge necessary for adequate preparation.  The private sector utilizes varying types of online learning across many different platforms.  With such widespread use of online learning in the workplace, presenting students with the opportunity to engage in online learning environments, particularly those that require an element of independence, will better prepare them for future training they may receive. Online learning in the workplace is not the only example of the practicality that offering online learning in our school offers,  higher education has become a hub for online learning in various capacities.  As mentioned above nearly 3 out of every 4 CAO’s feel that online learning is essential to their institution’s long-term academic strategy.  The flexibility of the online learning environment has proven to be one of the keys to success, of online learning in this area.  Micro-credentialing, badging, and other MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are all offering individuals the ability to pursue interests through the use of online learning.
  2. Credit Recovery- Many schools face the challenge of remediating students who fail core courses because of resources such as time and money.  Particularly in small districts that can’t afford to staff a teacher for all disciplines, online learning can fill a large void that can assist students who may need to recover credits lost during the school year.
  3. Expanding Curriculum Options-  Equity is a significant challenge facing our schools today.  Where you go to school should not dictate the opportunities available to you, and online learning can help schools fill in the gaps that may exist in their curriculum offerings.  Schools leveraging online learning have the ability to offer to their students a wide variety of curriculum offerings that otherwise may not be possible.

Online learning, if leveraged properly, can serve an excellent tool that can allow schools to increase learning opportunities that will not only benefit their students while in school but in the future as they pursue interests beyond K-12.

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