It’s back to school for Oklahoma students. But for a growing number, “back to school” looks very different from a few years ago.
That’s because in Oklahoma—and across the United States—school options are increasing. And online or virtual education is playing no small role in expanding educational choice.
Between the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years, the number of Oklahoma students enrolled in online education increased more than 160 percent, with 5,429 online students this year. More than 4 million of the nation’s students participate in some form of virtual learning, and online enrollment is growing by about 46 percent per year and accelerating, says a recent Ambient Insight report. Nearly every state offers some form of online learning.
“Students are … drawn to online learning because they love the ability to work directly [one-on-one] and interact with their online teachers and other students, to have personalized learning using digital content while still moving at their own pace,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Education.
Some students enrolled in virtual education take all their courses online, while others mix traditional schooling with online courses.
Promotes Mastery, Individualization
Although this school year won’t be the first in which Oklahoma students can take advantage of online education, it will be the first year of operation for the Oklahoma Virtual Charter School (OVCS). Other Oklahoma school districts partner with another online provider, K12, keeping 5 percent of the state’s approximately $7,000 per-pupil funding and sending the rest to K12.
Unlike a traditional classroom where students are all taught at the same pace, those enrolled in schools such as OVCS receive course materials to complete at their own pace and are paired with a teacher with whom they connect online.
Online learning “better promotes student mastery of subject matter” because it “adapts to the individual learning needs of each student” and “gives students greater choices in courses and more teacher feedback,” said Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in California.
Iowa’s Humboldt County Community Schools¬—a rural school district that has incorporated online learning for its students¬—has seen rising student achievement as a result, says Greg Darling, HCCS superintendent.
“[Online education has] included a lot of rigor,” Darling said. “That’s one reason why our schools have made gains, because of the challenge it’s given for students to be more specialized in their subject area.”
Broadening Options for Schools, Students
Just like traditional education, online learning provides courses from English to algebra and even physical education. It also opens access to a variety of courses that would otherwise be out of reach for some students. Patrick notes the main reason students enroll in online education is because a course is “otherwise unavailable because of teaching shortages in math, science, and foreign languages.”
For students in school districts with limited resources, online education provides an affordable way to obtain greater educational opportunities. At a time when many school districts are looking for ways to reduce costs, online learning saves money while providing students a quality education.
“It is cheaper to fund classes like this,” Darling said. “As compared to having one teacher teach four kids, we can have one online teacher because they’re able to teach more kids. And in rural schools you may only have one or two kids take that class, and you can’t afford a full-time teacher for that.”
Still in its beginning stages, online learning has the potential to create significant advancements in educational opportunity, expanding options and giving parents more control over their child’s academic future.
“We will continue to learn a great deal from this diversity of approaches, some purely virtual, others mixing technology-based with classroom instruction,” said Matthew Ladner, senior advisor for research and policy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. “As we learn more, the best approaches will advance to improve outcomes and broaden the choices available to parents.”
Image by ssedro.
Note: An earlier version of this article conflated Oklahoma per-pupil spending in public schools with their per-pupil allotment for online students. The state spends half as much on online students as it does on traditional public school students, which is true for nearly all state-sponsored online programs.