Online K-12 Schooling Gaining Popularity

Published January 1, 2009

Online learning is picking up steam as a viable option for public school students nationwide.

According to a report by seven sponsor agencies, including the Colorado Department of Education and Illinois Virtual High Schools, “Keeping the Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice,” online schooling is experiencing continued growth and is now an option for students in 44 states.

Making Progress

From late 2007 through June 2008, new online learning programs were created, current programs expanded, and legislation passed to encourage the growth of such schooling. The annual report, released in November, also identified some challenges facing online learning programs, the largest being funding.

“One of the great fallacies about online learning is that it should be a quarter of the cost of traditional programs,” said Mickey Revenaugh, vice president of Connections Academy, a Baltimore-based national online K-12 public school. “The cost of a high-quality online learning program is almost as much as a traditional school, with a bulk of the expense coming from technology and human resources.

“The real dilemma is the way online schools are funded,” Revenaugh continued. “They are often funded like charter schools, which we know are not funded as well as public schools. In addition, supplementary online courses are typically funded as a line item in the budget, which makes them susceptible to the whims of legislators and budget constraints.”

Protecting Virtual Schools

One state has passed legislation that helps protect the funding of online learning programs within its borders. In Florida, school districts are required to provide virtual learning programs to students in kindergarten through eighth grade by the 2009-10 school year, making funding mandatory.

The survey reported other states are making similar legislative decisions to ensure growth of online schooling options.

“There have been a couple of notable changes” in the past year, said John Watson, founder of Evergreen Consulting Services, which conducts the annual survey. “For instance, Alabama became the second state to require that schools provide students with an online learning experience before graduation. The only other state that does that is Michigan.”

Best Programs

In addition to funding challenges, other barriers include varying definitions of online learning and fears about virtual students’ ability to develop appropriate socialization skills. Revenaugh said parents must be highly involved when their child attends an online school and should make sure their children are involved in social activities such as sports.

Revenaugh also pointed out children already actively take part in online socialization tools such as MySpace and Facebook, and she said virtual administrators should be sure to provide similar modes of communication for online students.

“Only six or seven states in the nation have no online programs whatsoever,” said Revenaugh. “It’s safe to predict that additional states will look at how to give this option to their students. Online learning must be part of the educational experience in this country. If we want our students to be competitive, online programs need to be available so students can have access to the best classes and teachers available, which may not always be found at their local school.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“Keeping the Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice,” November 2008: