The growing popularity and success of online learning is an important but "largely unnoticed" trend that reform-minded educators and policy makers could use to much greater advantage as they seek to improve public education in general, says a new report from Education Sector, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.
Titled "Laboratories of Reform: Virtual High Schools and Innovation in Public Education," the report urges reformers to recognize that long-sought improvements in teaching and learning already are being applied successfully in online education.
"Virtual schooling is driving the same sorts of transforming changes in public education as Apple’s iTunes has been producing in the way people collect and listen to music," the report asserts. "While the importance of effective teaching and learning has not changed, the internet has enabled educators to significantly alter the experience of schooling."
For example, the report says, virtual schools are "personalizing student learning and extending it beyond the traditional school day," as well as creating "new models for the practice of teaching–with opportunities to easily observe, evaluate, and assist instructors. And they are pioneering performance-based education funding models."
As a result, successful experiences in virtual education–which so far have been structured mostly as "supplemental" programs–are demonstrating that "innovative reforms can be readily integrated into the public school system," the report concludes.
Nationwide, two dozen states now have state-run programs in virtual schooling, mostly at the high school level, Education Sector notes. It cites an estimate by the Sloan Consortium–a group created by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to improve online education–that 700,000 of the nation’s 48 million elementary and secondary students were served by online schools in the 2005-06 school year. (Editor’s note: America’s school-age population now numbers 53.3 million, according to the most recent Census Bureau data.)
But while the online enrollment figure is less than 1.5 percent of total school enrollment in 2005-06, it reflects a doubling over three years and is "likely to continue to rise rapidly," Education Sector says.
The organization’s report was written by Bill Tucker, its chief operating officer. He stressed in an interview that reformers might not have to look much beyond their own backyards for an exciting new avenue to school reform, because in online learning, many positive changes are "going on already."
New approaches to issues such as who should teach, how instructional responsibilities should be divided, and where to direct limited financial resources for the greatest educational benefits are being effectively modeled by online programs, Tucker added, and educators ought to be paying close attention.
But the Education Sector report also cautions that policy makers should "make it their primary goal to use virtual schooling to significantly improve student learning outcomes and not as a measure to save costs." Focusing on virtual education mainly as a way to save money "will likely lead to lower quality programs," the report observes.
Drawing on input from several dozen educators and policy makers, among other sources, the report includes these policy recommendations:
- Don’t let calls for stricter scrutiny of virtual schooling compromise innovation. "The right way to increase scrutiny is to demand greater transparency and more accurate ways to measure student learning in virtual schools. Regulating the wrong inputs–class sizes, seat time, or any other number of traditional measures–will not guarantee quality, and may stifle the innovation and flexibility that give virtual learning its strength," the report says.
- Virtual schools should "participate in consortia to standardize, make public, and provide timely reporting around student demographics and course enrollments, learning outcomes, test results, and other critical data." Online institutions also should "research, develop, and implement new measures to assess student engagement and demonstrate skills, such as critical thinking and collaborative work."
- The federal government should create a $120 million Virtual Schooling Innovation Fund to "spur innovations at the high school level that could be extended to hundreds of thousands of students easily and rapidly." Meanwhile, "district, state, nonprofit, and university-based programs should take advantage of economies of scale and remove barriers to cross-state or joint development and updating of course components."
- Educators should adopt new "dynamic models for funding and accountability" to replace the traditional seat-time model, which is "not flexible enough to enable the exponential number of variations … required to implement true personalized learning."
- States should "enable true reciprocity for certified teachers by allowing teachers living in and certified in one state … to teach for a virtual school located in another state … without having to become certified in the school’s home state."
As enthusiastic as the report is about the potential of online learning to encourage broader reforms in traditional schools, it also sees "many challenges to overcome" before that can happen, including a "disconnect" between traditional and online learning environments, uncertainty surrounding learning outcomes, and the "behemoth" issues of equity and access.
Can the innovation spread? the report asks. Will broader reforms follow? Education Sector offers a one-word answer: "Perhaps."
Education Sector report