Just as online college and graduate programs have broadened the range of options in higher education, virtual charter schools and online classes are gaining popularity among the K-12 set.
To the delight of homeschooling parents and others wanting a different kind of education for their children than what is found in the local public school, entrepreneurs are flooding the Internet marketplace to offer everything from individual courses to entire schools. Improving technology is providing more opportunities for interactive features on Web sites, such as live chats, videos, and downloads.
Virtual K-12 education began to develop over the past five years as a way to support homeschool students. First, books and materials were made available for purchase and mail order, followed by programs that facilitated learning, and then video-linked instructors.
“The ability to create a ‘classroom of one,’ where each student has a focused learning experience with their teacher, is truly within reach,” said Dan Cookson, CEO of TrueNorthLogic, a company serving 850,000 students, teachers, and administrators nationwide.
Accommodating Interests, Schedules
Supplemental programs and tools–often targeted toward students who rely on their parents and/or online schools for the majority of their education–are also being used in traditional classrooms.
Programs can be used to supplement the main lesson plan, providing children with another means to learn. Some parents of children in traditional schools use online education programs at home to enrich their children’s education, give them remedial work, or assist them with unique situations such as a disability or unusual extracurricular or athletic training schedules.
In a climate where test scores rule, programs such as those available through InteractiveMathTutor.com provide distance-learning opportunities for students in alternative programs and traditional students requiring special assistance to hone their math skills for class work and standardized tests. According to its Web site, InteractiveMathTutor.com strives to enhance the experience of learning for online students by providing around-the-clock access to personalized tutoring, with “a daily and direct communication line to receiving quality, highly effective help in a timely manner.”
Critics of online education point out the absence of live teachers and social interaction. But Cookson said students are separated from their teachers “only by distance, not by the level of attention or involvement. The online environment can be a student-centric model that increases communication capacity among teachers, students, parents, and administrators.”
Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., a 10-year-old company that offers Web-based content management systems to school districts as well as online tutorials for writers and other supplemental services, notes some potential pitfalls.
“There’s no question that online learning resources are beneficial. The question is under what circumstances,” Peha explained. “While online learning may soon replace in-school learning, the results will be very different. Access to information will be better. And the cost will be lower. But the quality of the final result may not be what we want for our children or for our country.”
Learning is an inherently social process, Peha said, so when kids learn something in an online setting, the best “supplemental” activity is interacting with people in a different context, where they can put their new learning to use. After working with students in both online and classroom settings, Peha says, “the greatest success comes from the student’s own initiative.” As a result, he concludes, the ideal situation combines online and classroom learning.
Alison Lake ([email protected]) is editor and director of media relations at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.
For more information …
For more information, visit the Web sites of TrueNorthLogic, http://www.truenorthlogic.com; InteractiveMathTutor.com, http://www.interactivemathtutor.com; and Teaching That Makes Sense, http://www.ttms.org/.
See also “Internet Reshapes Outlook for Rural Schools,” School Reform News, November 2003, available online at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=13549.
More than two dozen documents on distance and online learning are available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and choose the topic/subtopic combination Education/Distance Learning.