New research suggests that more K-12 public school students will take classes online and will have longer school days in the next decade–and academic improvement and cost savings are two big benefits.

Online courses are already commonplace in higher education and are growing in popularity at the K-12 level as well. Orlando-based Florida Virtual School (FLVS) has quickly become the nation’s largest virtual school, serving nearly 65,000 students in the 2007-08 school year.

"Policy makers and educators have proposed expanding learning time in elementary through high school grades as a way to improve students’ academic performance, but online coursework hasn’t been on their radar," said Catherine Cavanaugh, associate professor at the University of Florida’s College of Education and author of the report, "Getting Students More Learning Time Online: Distance Education in Support of Expanded Learning Time in K-12 Schools."

Cavanaugh’s report found that the average yearly cost of online learning for a full-time student was about $4,300 in 2008, based on a survey of 20 virtual schools in 14 states.  The national average cost per student in a traditional public school in 2006, the most recent year in which data were available, was more than $9,100. Cost estimates included course development, teaching, and administrative and technical expenses.

"Online programs have little or no cost for instructional facilities, transportation, and related staff," Cavanaugh said. "The value of distance education also increases when considering the broad range of available online courses."

And while virtual schools will still have technology and instructional costs, "we do think it is more cost-effective–you don’t have to worry about buildings for the kids, transportation, food, so you don’t have all of those overhead costs," said Holly Sagues, chief strategist for FLVS.

"Over the next decade, we expect an explosion in the use of virtual schooling as a seamless synthesis between the traditional classroom and online learning," Cavanaugh said.

The report states that the number of K-12 students taking online courses increased from about 200,000 in 2001 to almost 2 million in 2007, and it suggests the number could easily reach several million by 2012.  

"We fully support that trend, and we see it here–we grow from 25 to 40 percent each year and usually have a waiting list for students to get into our courses," said Sagues.

Sagues cautioned that online schools are not a one-size-fits-all solution.

"Students are all different and they all have different learning styles, so for some students full online learning works great, others may be more successful in a blended model, and some might be most successful in a traditional school building," she said.

The number of teachers applying to teach in virtual education programs is increasing along with the number of students enrolling in them. Universities and teacher colleges have started to include online teaching components in their teacher-education programs.

The report highlights states such as Georgia and Wisconsin, which have added online teaching requirements to their teacher certifications.

Cavanaugh suggested that investing in virtual education could give students access to classes before and after the regular school day, and also during the day–essentially lengthening the school day without requiring money for new buildings, additional staff, professional development, and operating costs.

And while students might not welcome longer school days or school years with open arms, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have mentioned both as possible ways to keep U.S. students competitive with their peers in foreign nations.

"Even a few days’ difference in learning time can determine whether a school makes adequate yearly progress," Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh described a school day that begins early and ends late, with students attending traditional classes on designated weekdays and attending online classes in a computer lab setting on other days.

A longer school day allows for sports, recreation, clubs, and enrichment activities, and students might use internet-capable phones and mobile devices, such as netbooks, to access online courses and assignments while on the school bus and on long field trips, she said.

The emergence and staying power of virtual schools has prompted researchers to examine not whether online education is effective, but rather, in what situations and under what circumstances it is most effective.

"Virtual schooling and online learning fit in extremely well with the emerging trend to embrace the same technologies that our young people are using in their everyday lives and apply them in education," Cavanaugh said. "Schools that don’t embrace online learning soon will be viewed as limiting the learning opportunities of their students."

Links:

Getting Students More Learning Time Online: Distance Education in Support of Expanded Learning Time in K-12 Schools

Florida Virtual School