Online courses aren't just for home-schoolers anymore
Small schools use them to broaden class offerings; Michigan aims to mandate them.
If high school student Kelsey Speaks had taken all of her classes at her bricks-and-mortar school, she wouldn't now be three years into her Latin studies. Since junior high, Kelsey has enrolled in eight courses in a virtual classroom through Colorado Online Learning, a state-funded program. The junior at tiny La Veta High School in southern Colorado says taking courses online is a great choice. "It's allowed me to do things I wouldn't otherwise have been able to do," she says.Skip to next paragraph
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In addition to letting her take courses (for free) that her school doesn't offer, online learning has made her schedule flexible enough that she can captain the debate team, edit the yearbook, and do volunteer work as well. She also gets to study independently, which she enjoys.
Once considered the domain of home-schooled students, K-12 online learning is a fast-growing option for public school students in rural, urban, and suburban areas. Michigan lawmakers are likely to pass legislation soon that will require high school students to take one course online before they graduate.
"What happened is Michigan beat everyone to the punch," says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va. Ms. Patrick says more states will follow Michigan's lead as they realize the importance of online literacy in the 21st century.
Enrollment in online programs has been growing for about the past five years, says Bob Blomeyer, a researcher at Midwestern Regional Educational Laboratory (MREL), a nonprofit research center in Naperville, Ill. "The trend line is turning up at a really sharp angle, and that's why this way of teaching and learning needs to be taken a lot more seriously," Mr. Blomeyer says.
As of July 2005, 21 states had K-12 online learning programs, according to a large study by Learning Point Associates, of which MREL is a part. The programs report rapid growth, some by double-digit percentages every year. Utah and Florida have by far the biggest statewide online learning programs, with more than 35,000 students enrolled in Utah and 21,000 in Florida.
Students have a variety of reasons for taking courses online. Some need flexible schedules or can't come to school for medical or disciplinary reasons. Others retake classes they failed or enroll in specialized or advanced courses their schools don't offer.
In the 2002-03 school year, 9 percent of the nation's public schools reported having students enrolled in "distance education courses," which include classes on TV, says the National Center for Educational Statistics. Almost 70 percent of these school districts had online classes.
"The need just seems to be there," says Julie Young, president and CEO of Florida Virtual School, a state-funded program that she expects to grow by 40 to 60 percent next school year, based on past performance dating to 1997. One reason for Florida's need might be classroom size, Ms. Young says. "We have fairly overcrowded classrooms in Florida," she says. "It's not unusual to find math classes of 35 to 40 in some of the larger schools."
The current national emphasis on math and science in schools might also create a new relevance for online learning, says Tim Snyder, director of Colorado Online Learning. Virtual teachers could help ease the nationwide shortage of math and science teachers, he says.