New report highlights barriers to online learning

Broadband access is crucial to success in online learning programs, a new report says.

Students must have reliable broadband access if they are to take advantage of 21st-century online education programs that can increase their access to educational opportunities, according to a new report from the U.S. Distance Learning Association (USDLA).

The report, Enabled by Broadband, Education Enters a New Frontier, highlights success and growth in online education programs across the country. It also outlines the need for increased broadband access and suggests policy measures to ensure that barriers to continued growth in online learning are removed.

“Online learning … is keeping students engaged and in school, especially at-risk youth who are able to overcome educational obstacles because of the flexible and exciting nature of distance learning,” said John G. Flores, USDLA’s executive director. “Students and lifelong learners are reaching their goals because of broadband technology applications.”

A 2009 Education Department (ED) report estimated that more than 1 million K-12 students were enrolled in online education programs in 2007. The nonprofit Project Tomorrow, which issues an annual survey of student and teacher views of classroom technology, found that the number of high school students taking an online class nearly doubled from 2008 to 2009.

In its National Broadband Plan, the Federal Communications Commission notes that online education programs have had a beneficial impact in many states across the nation, including Aldine Independent School District in Texas, which enrolled at-risk students in an online program for school credit, as well as the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon, which re-enrolled more than 50 percent of its dropouts and at-risk students through its online program.

“Still, for all of the gains, online learning is not a universal opportunity because not all Americans are connected to the internet,” the report says. Broadband access plays a crucial role.

The latest Pew Internet & American Life Project survey indicates that one-third of Americans do not have broadband access at home. And the U.S. Commerce Department just released Census data indicating that the nation still faces a significant gap in residential broadband use that breaks down along incomes, education levels, and other socio-economic factors.

“Bridging these divides in online learning equalizes opportunity and is one more reason the national goal of broadband for every citizen is critical,” the report continues.

While some school leaders have concerns about the initial cost of online education programs, the potential to lose funding owing to archaic seat-time formulas, and decreases in student motivation and discipline, “once educators understand the power and effectiveness of online learning … concerns and misconceptions disappear,” the report says.

The report outlines four measures to bolster support and expansion of online learning programs, and it encourages policy makers and educators to work together to advance the goals.

Those four goals are:

  • Educators and education officials at every level, including ED, should move forward with the development of online curriculum and the digital content to support it. They also should continue to evaluate the effectiveness of various approaches to online learning and to educate parents, students, teachers, and others about the benefits of online education programs.
  • Policy makers at every level should review accreditation rules, teacher licensing requirements, copyright law, and other laws and regulations that might unintentionally undermine the effectiveness of online education programs and limit the use of digital technologies in the classroom. To the extent possible, antiquated rules should be modified to eliminate unintentional barriers to online learning.
  • Public policy makers should redouble their efforts to deliver broadband access and the opportunity to enjoy online learning to every American. The universal deployment and adoption of broadband technology should be the first priority in national technology policy, and efforts to achieve this goal should include digital literacy and education initiatives that encourage late adopters to embrace broadband.
  • Technology policy makers should explore measures, such as the creation of a universal broadband support fund, to enable the deployment and adoption of broadband in high-cost areas. Similarly, policy makers should avoid policies, including unnecessary regulation, that can raise costs and make it harder for less affluent school districts and individuals to fully adopt broadband technology.

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