Online learning offers a lifeline for rural schools in particular, according to a recent study that also predicts "blended learning" could be the way most students learn in the future.

The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) study, called "K-12 Online Learning," is a follow-up to the group’s 2007 report, which was one of the first studies to collect data about online and blended learning in K-12 schools. The new study, released in January, is based on information gathered from more than 800 U.S. school systems during the 2007-08 academic year.

According to the study, three-quarters of responding school districts had at least one student enrolled in a fully online or blended course, an increase of about 10 percentage points from the group’s earlier study.

The total number of K-12 students taking online or blended courses in 2007-08 was estimated at 1,030,000–up from 700,000 in the earlier study–and two-thirds of respondents said they expect their online enrollments will continue to grow.

Online learning has developed differently in K-12 schools than it has in higher education, the report noted.

At colleges and universities, online learning has grown much more rapidly, as these institutions have invested significant dollars in developing and delivering their own online courses and degree programs.

K-12 schools, on the other hand, have "approached online learning with caution," the report says. "Rather than investing resources in developing their own delivery support structure, they typically depend on a number of outside online learning providers, including postsecondary institutions, independent vendors, and state virtual schools."

What’s more, most school districts (83 percent) said they use multiple online-learning providers rather than contracting with a single provider.

Contrary to popular belief, the report says, it’s not just advanced students who are benefiting from online instruction. Respondents said online learning is meeting the needs of a wide range of students–from those who want to take advanced classes to those who need extra help or credit recovery.

And rural students seem to be benefiting the most.

"The loudest and clearest voices were those of respondents representing small rural school districts. In these places, online learning is not simply an attractive alternative to face-to-face instruction but increasingly is becoming a lifeline to basic [high-]quality education," the report says.

"Shortages of teachers in high-demand secondary school subject areas such as science, mathematics, and foreign languages, as well as modest property tax bases and the lowest per-pupil expenditures…, have forced rural school districts to use their financial resources as wisely and effectively as possible."

Online learning gives these districts a cost-efficient way to deliver courses that otherwise would require hiring teachers, the report says–many of whom "would be uncertified in their subject areas and … would not have enough students to justify their salaries."

Without online learning, one survey respondent said, "there may have been 40 fewer high school graduates in our small county last year."

Though online learning is meeting the needs of a variety of students, including those who need credit recovery or extra help, many respondents noted that students have to be disciplined to succeed in an online environment.

"Observation: Students [who] struggle with reading have difficulty with online courses. Students [who] are self-starters and with average or above academic skills find the highest success rate with online courses," wrote one respondent.

The study found that concerns about the quality of online courses and the costs of providing them are the key barriers to K-12 online instruction. Responses suggested that a more thorough evaluation of online learning will help overcome any remaining questions about its rigor.

"As an administrator, I am interested in fully embracing online learning; however, our community (including teachers) are critical of the quality, content, et cetera," one respondent wrote. "As online courses are evaluated and proven to be viable means of delivering [high-]quality instruction, our community will more fully embrace this instructional model."

Interestingly, restrictive federal state, or local laws and policies were not found to be much of a barrier; only 20 percent of respondents cited these as "important" concerns. But one policy that does appear to need changing is the tying of per-pupil funding to outdated "seat-time" requirements.

"We see the need for online courses as a means to address student learning styles and to minimize the need for increased facility space. The state department of elementary and secondary education needs to change standards so that a district can deliver an online course and not lose state aid because of no physical seat time," wrote one respondent.

Not surprisingly, the report said, the vast majority of K-12 students taking online courses are high schoolers. Kindergarten through fifth-grade students represent only 21 percent of those enrolled in fully online courses–and just 1 percent of blended enrollment.

Though blending learning, which combines both face-to-face and online instruction, hasn’t played much of a role in K-12 education so far, many experts say it’s likely to emerge as the predominant model for education in the future, according to the Sloan-C report.

The report quotes Julie Young, founder of the Florida Virtual School, as saying: "Within five years, there will be lots of blended models, such as students going to school two days a week and working at home three days a week. Another blended model … is where a student takes five [face-to-face] courses at school and two virtual courses…"

And a 2008 report, from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL, formerly known as the North American Council for Online Learning), stated: "The blending of online programs and the classroom setting has been relatively slow to develop in K-12 education. However, emerging models in other countries, such as Singapore and Australia, as well as in higher education, suggest that a large part of the future of education will involve providing content, resources, and instruction both digitally and face-to-face in the same classroom."

The iNACOL report concluded: "This blended approach combines the best elements of online and face-to-face learning. It is likely to emerge as the predominant model of the future–and to become far more common than either one alone."

Links:

Sloan Consortium

International Association for K-12 Online Learning