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Online courses aren't just for home-schoolers anymore

Small schools use them to broaden class offerings; Michigan aims to mandate them.

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"The cause of these little school districts is really a noble one," Ms. Urschel says. "Many of them are dying on the vine because of numerous economic reasons. It's just that without a quality control process that gives us parameters, the student may not be getting what they need, and the tax dollars might not be being used in the best way."

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Education researchers are just beginning to seriously study K-12 online learning, says Susan Lowes, director of research and evaluation at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University's Teachers College. She says existing research typically focuses on whether online learning is as good as classroom learning. "I think we now have gone way beyond that, or should have gone beyond that, to try to understand how it's different, both positively and negatively."

Most educational technology experts say what's most promising is a collaboration of traditional and online classes. "The future is a blended model," Patrick says.

A sampling of online learners and courses

Students' busy schedules are a top reason they choose to take online courses. "Being able to manage my own time and the fact that I can work around my schedule is a huge help," says Deborah Lynn, a high school junior who has taken AP macroeconomics through Florida Virtual School.

Originally from New York, Deborah lives with a host family in Florida so she can play ice hockey at a training facility. When she travels for games, she often misses school on Fridays or Mondays, which are big test-taking days, so she says it's easier to keep up in online courses than classroom courses.

Other students take online courses because their schools don't offer the courses they want to take. Kayla Clark, a junior at Brattleboro Union High School in Vermont, says she's wanted to be a veterinarian since she was 10 years old, growing up on her family's dairy farm. Now she's taking pre- veterinary medicine online through her school's membership in Virtual High School, a Massachusetts nonprofit that provides online courses to K-12 schools around the world.

Online teachers say they learn from students and adapt their curriculum when they need to. Also from Kayla's high school in Brattleboro, Steve Perrin teaches a course on the history of chemistry for Virtual High School. One of his students, a surfing enthusiast in Brazil, complained that the course was too Eurocentric. So Mr. Perrin is adding some material about Chinese explorers. "The kids do have an effect on the teachers," he says.

Here are a few examples of online courses from some of the oldest and biggest online programs around the country:

NavaJo Government: Utah's Electronic High School, $100 per semester for students outside Utah,

Calculus for Business: Virtual High School, $425 per semester,

Chinese language (Mandarin): Michigan Virtual High School, $275 per semester for out-of-state pupils,

Consumer Law: Colorado Online Learning, $350 per semester for students outside Colorado,

Marine Science: Florida Virtual School, $750 for students outside Florida,