Nearly three-fourths of public school districts in the United States plan to expand distance-learning programs, the federal government reported March 2.

According to the first federal study of the issue (titled Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students), the popularity of distance education has spread from colleges to earlier grades, as students in more than one-third of U.S. school districts take courses over the internet or through video conferences.

From social studies and math to English and computer science, thousands of basic courses are being taught in an unconventional way–with the teacher and student in different places.

The main reason is that districts want to offer courses students can’t get at their own schools, according to the new report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

Most popular in rural areas and in the southeast and central sections of the country, distance-education courses also allow schools to reduce schedule conflicts for students, such as children who take a math class online so they can fit in another band class at school.

Overall, an estimated 36 percent of public school districts, or 5,500 out of more than 15,000 districts, had students enrolled in distance-ed courses in the 2002-03 school year.

Most of the students are in high school, but some are in middle school or even elementary school.

About 9 percent of public schools have students in distance-ed courses. But Susan Patrick, who oversees the department’s educational technology office, said she expects huge growth.

“As we look at high school reform and wanting to offer more rigorous curriculum, wanting to have highly qualified teachers in math and science, it is a growing option,” she said.

Schools seem to agree. According to the survey, 72 percent of districts with students enrolled in distance-education courses planned to expand these courses in the future.

For example, an elementary school in a remote area of Alaska might offer its students an online class in math because it lacks a specialist in that subject, Patrick said.

Schools also are using distance-ed programs to teach foreign languages and other often hard-to-staff courses, especially in rural areas. According to the survey, the number of students enrolled in foreign language distance-ed courses was greater for rural districts (22 percent) than for suburban or urban districts (10 percent and 5 percent, respectively).

The unorthodox course offerings are helping college-bound students engage in advanced work as well. In 2003, the study found, there were an estimated 45,300 enrollments in Advanced Placement (AP) or college-level courses offered through distance-education programs. In fact, 50 percent of the districts with distance-ed courses had students enrolled in AP or college-level courses.

In the study, distance-education courses are credit-granting classes in which the enrolled students and the teachers are at different locations. The courses may originate from the local school district, a college or university, or a “virtual” school sponsored by the state or other parties.

Online, audio, or video classes–live or recorded–are among the distance courses. Smaller and rural districts rely more on video conferencing, while urban and suburban districts and larger school systems use internet courses most often, the study found.

Two-way interactive video is the most popular means of delivery for distance-education courses (55 percent), according to the survey. Self-paced, internet-based courses using some form of computer-based instruction are also in high demand (47 percent). Other forms of delivery currently in use in schools include synchronous computer-based instruction models, where students have to be logged on at certain times during the day to participate (21 percent), and the use of one-way prerecorded video (16 percent).

The nonprofit Michigan Virtual High School offers about 100 courses, drawing 7,700 individual enrollments last year, mainly from students at public schools. Students communicate with a certified teacher by eMail, chat with classmates in online discussion groups, get help from an on-site mentor, and often take their tests at their home school.

“It isn’t uncommon for parents to stop me and say, ‘What is this all about?'” said Robert Currie, the virtual school’s executive director. “The popularity is growing because of the flexibility it offers to students, much as it does to adults.”

Currie’s organization now draws students from 450 high schools, up from 100 when it began in 2002. Virtual high schools are catching on in other states, too. Florida and West Virginia also boast statewide programs, as does Kentucky. Several other states, including Georgia and Maryland, have considered legislation that would create more virtual learning opportunities for students.

Though a large percentage of the courses can be accessed from virtually anywhere, as long as students have access to the internet, the study found that distance learners still prefer to do their learning at school instead of from home.

Of those districts with students enrolled in distance-ed courses, the survey indicated that 92 percent had students accessing online courses from school, 60 percent had students accessing online courses from home, and just 8 percent had students accessing online courses from some other location, such as a friend’s house or local library.

More importantly, the survey found, students are finding a way to access these courses, even if their local schools don’t offer them directly.

Of those districts with distance-ed courses, about half (48 percent) had students enrolled in programs delivered by a postsecondary institution. Thirty-four percent had students enrolled in courses delivered by another local school district, or schools in other districts, within their state, while 18 percent of respondents said their students were enrolled in courses offered as part of a statewide virtual school, the study found.

And it isn’t just public school students who are getting into the act. According to the survey, about one-fifth (21 percent) of districts that offered distance-education opportunities delivered courses to students who were not regularly enrolled in the district, including students who are home-schooled and those who attend private schools.

At the college level, enrollment in distance-education courses nearly doubled from 1995 to 2001, as more than half of the nation’s two-year and four-year colleges now offer the courses.

ED’s latest report on distance education is the first nationally representative study of such course offerings and enrollments in elementary and secondary schools. It comes from 2003 surveys of public school districts in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The survey found a range of reasons districts might struggle to expand distance-ed courses, including the costs of course development and concerns about quality.

Yet assessing quality might be easier with an electronic course, Patrick said, because so many measures can be tracked, including the number of times students and teachers interact. That’s not as transparent in a traditional class, she said, because “the door is shut.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Report: “Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students”
http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2005010