Santorum pulls children out of online charter school

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., had to take his children out of an online charter school. There was a backlash against the senator because his hometown’s local school district was paying the education bill for all of his children, even though Santorum’s entire family lives now in the Washington area.


HighTechHigh a dream come true for students in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Times reports on the opening of HighTechHigh-LA, a charter school that offers state-of-the-art technology to 325 children from several parts of greater Los Angeles. Enrollment at the school has been kept down so that students get more individual attention. (Note: This site requires registration.)


Online directory a problem for student with a famous name

The Seattle Times reports that the opt-out feature in an online student directory at the University of Washington has ended up causing the very sort of confusion it was supposed to avert. The school has two students named Nate Robinson. One is a basketball star and the other is a cartoonist. The basketball star isn’t in the directory, but the cartoonist is. As a result, the cartoonist’s eMail box is being flooded by people eager to contact the basketball star.


Tech-savvy Texas district setting its sights on fiber optics

The Daily Times of Kerrville, Texas, reports the local school district is pursuing a plan that would enable it to have fiber optic technology–connecting all buildings to a central IT department. The move to fiber optics is even more appealing because every classroom in the district is now equipped with a computer.


Local foundation helps Mass. district pay for its technology

The Reading Advocate of Reading, Mass., reports that a local foundation has received applications for a total of $61,708 in school technology grants. The foundation gave out $14,000 to help fund the grants, including money to buy a digital microscope, additional computers and web-publishing software.


Security experts find six more holes in Microsoft’s browser

TechWeb reports that the Danish security firm Secunia has found six additional security holes in the Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 web browser. One vulnerability, which is part of the Windows XP Service Pack 2 release, allows hackers to disable a warning to users that downloaded files might contain viruses.


District eyes major boost from small IT staffing increase

The Daily News Transcript of Needham, Mass., reports that the head of instructional technology for the Walpole school system is asking for nearly $8,000 in additional funding for IT staffing. By adding more man-hours to the IT departments, schools will be able to focus more on administering to the overall network and less on daily troubleshooting.


Security experts find six more holes in Microsoft’s browser

TechWeb reports that the Danish security firm Secunia has found six additional security holes in the Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 web browser. One vulnerability, which is part of the Windows XP Service Pack 2 release, allows hackers to disable a warning to users that downloaded files might contain viruses.


Will virtual lectures vacate classrooms?

Pay a visit to any lecture hall on just about any college campus nationwide; chances are you’ll notice a few empty chairs. Two years ago, most professors would simply have chalked these absences up to illness or, perhaps, just plain sloth. But, according to a new national survey, more students than ever are opting to get their learning online, trading in early morning lectures and long walks across campus for grades handed down in cyberspace.

Released Nov. 12, the second annual Sloan Report on Online learning entitled, “Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2003 and 2004,” is based on a survey of 1,100 colleges and universities. Its findings suggest that enrollments in university-sponsored online courses are spiking at average rates of 25 percent year over year.

The study was sponsored by the nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), a group dedicated to pursuing the benefits of online education in schools. The survey looks at the factors contributing to the rapid expansion of online learning in postsecondary education, and the study’s authors project the trend will continue through 2005.

The survey is not the first of its kind, nor is the phenomenon limited to colleges. In September 2003, Boston-based Eduventures Inc. released a report that tracked a veritable explosion of virtual courses in K-12 schools.

At the K-12 level, the Eduventures report “What can Virtual Learning Do for Your School?” suggested institutions are using virtual courses to provide both supplemental and advanced instruction to students who otherwise wouldn’t have the option of taking such courses. Going a step further, some states–including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida–have developed full-fledged virtual schools, where students can take some or all of their courses online.

Now the trend is picking up at the college level as well. According to the Nov. 12 survey, approximately 2.6 million postsecondary students are currently enrolled in online courses through various colleges and universities nationwide, marking a significant increase compared with the 1.9 million students taking classes online in the fall of 2003.

But as students continue to flood online learning programs, opponents of the trend have remained critical, especially when it comes to a perceived need for more face-to-face contact among faculty members, students, and classmates. The Sloan-C authors, however, report such concerns are overblown. According to the survey, students enrolled in online courses say they are as satisfied –if not, more satisfied–with the instruction they receive over the internet as they are with the instruction in traditional classroom environments.

The survey states that 40.7 percent of online learners are “at least as satisfied” with their virtual teachers and courses as they are with their other classes. Students who attend large schools such as those offering Doctoral/Research, Masters, and Associates degrees tend to have a higher opinion of online courses than those attending small, Baccalaureate schools (enrollments of 1,500 or less), the study finds.

One school that says it’s making significant inroads through the addition of online courses is the University of Central Florida (UCF). An institution with more than 42,000 students, Central Florida offers numerous undergraduate- and graduate-level courses for completion over the internet.

“At the University of Central Florida, we have found that online education compares favorably with face-to-face instruction,” said UCF President John Hitt. “Today’s students are comfortable learning and communicating online, and we can increase our enrollment and diversity without burdening our already crowded classroom schedule.”

And UCF is not alone. Large universities such as the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Massachusetts also have been aggressively expanding online opportunities for students.

In fact, 53.6 percent of the responding schools said “online education is critical to their long-term strategy,” according to the report.

Larger institutions seemed to be the most adamant about the need for more virtual opportunities in schools, with 65 percent pushing for greater emphasis on internet-based instruction in the future. Small schools, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic. More than 20 percent of all private nonprofit schools that responded to the survey said they did not consider online learning an essential part of their future.

Elaine Allen, professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College and co-author of the Sloan report, said online learning is providing schools with a means to attract students who wouldn’t normally attend a four-year college.

Though an increasing number of undergraduate students are enrolling in online classes, Allen said, “the kinds of [learners] most attracted to these types of courses tend to be older students.” These are mainly people with families and full-time jobs who seek to fit schooling into their already busy schedules.

Despite the enthusiasm, she said, it isn’t likely online courses will eventually replace the demand for traditional classroom instruction. “The area in which we’ve seen the most push-back is in traditional four-year liberal arts colleges,” she said. All indications are that the majority of these types of students still prefer the four-walls of the classroom to the convenience of cyberspace.

In fact, personal preference might now be the most important distinguishing factor when it comes to a student’s choice of learning experiences.

“One of the earliest perceptions about online learning was that is was of lower quality than face-to-face instruction,” the report explains, but today, that perception has changed dramatically. “When asked to compare learning outcomes in online courses with those for face-to-face instruction, academic leaders put the two on very close terms, and expected the online offerings to continue to get better relative to the face-to-face option,” researchers said. “Schools continue to believe online learning is just as good as being there.”


Executive Summary: Entering the Mainstream: “The Quality and Extent of Online Learning in the United States 2003, 2004”

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Eduventures Inc.