Research & Commentary: Online Learning and Related Technology

Published August 8, 2011

Online K-12 education is growing rapidly as lawmakers authorize state-run or -approved virtual education options such as single classes from myriad operators and entire virtual schools. Private operators have entered the public-sector market, usually after private-sector success.

One such organization, the Khan Academy, was started by a hedge fund manager posting YouTube videos about statistical analysis and math for his cousins. The site has grown to offer more than 2,400 videos and received a $1.5 million grant from the heavyweight Gates Foundation.

Desiring to assert government control over online education, some states have erected barriers to access, such as requiring online teachers to hold state teacher certification or site operators to have state accreditation. It is true that a few rogue operators have attempted to exploit immigrants or low-income families by offering wild education gains and not following through after receiving fees, but such activities are already illegal under fraud laws.

Online education and related technology offer schools and states a chance to eliminate drudgework such as record-keeping, use fewer teachers and administrators to do the same amount of work and thus trim budgets considerably in a time of economic trouble, and give students, parents, and educators up-to-the-minute, personalized education and related information, proponents say. The opportunities for efficiency and more effective, personalized education are vast, but they will be achieved only if states allow the system to develop naturally.

The following documents offer additional information on online learning and related technology.


Changes in Florida Law Make it Easier to Take Classes Online
Florida recently removed barriers to its virtual class offerings, including requirements that enrollees have a year of public instruction before enrolling in online classes and requiring high school students to have taken at least one virtual class to graduate, reports the Florida Times-Union. Students also can attend the state’s virtual high school full-time and receive their diploma from it.

Dell Foundation Launches Tool to Connect Student Data

The Dell Foundation has released a data standard allowing different data repositories to “communicate” with each other and share information across the myriad programs that school districts and states use, reports Education Week. It’s one of many such tools in the works to help educators and researchers use the massive piles of data that have begun accumulating as governments require more and more information about students and systems.

Pondering Digital Learning
In this National Journal symposium, participants consider how the abundance of online and technological education options can affect children’s achievement. Some tout the savings and personalization of digital tools, but others worry about turning education into a machine or focusing too much on fancy gadgets rather than learning itself, in whatever form.

Online Learning 101: A Guide to Virtual Public Education in Washington
Diana Moore of the Freedom Foundation writes of the 16,000 students using online education in Washington state and outlines the political threats to the growing freedom and customization it offers. These dangers include overregulation and elimination due to political pressure and general misunderstanding. To protect online learning, she writes, citizens and legislators must understand what it is and why it is a necessary option.

Virtually Irrelevant: How Certification Rules Impede the Growth of Virtual Schools
Given that almost none of the criteria states use to grant teaching credentials—credit hours, degrees, test scores, and the like—has proved to make any significant difference in teaching quality, states should not require virtual school teachers to hold them, argues Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation. Such one-size-fits-all requirements pose the most serious barrier to widespread adoption of online education, he says, and they greatly limit the reach of great teachers who could otherwise transform greater numbers of students’ lives through the Internet.

How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education
Wired Magazine reports on the explosive success of Khan Academy, which has begun to “flip” traditional classroom activities: Children are assigned to watch the organization’s lectures online outside of class and then work at each student’s own level and pace during class time. The academy also offers math problems students complete online, which then target the individual’s weaknesses and move up a level when the student has mastered a concept.

From Bricks to Clicks: Will Technology Truly Transform K-12 Education?

Panelists at the Aspen Ideas Festival discuss whether and how technology will affect K-12 education, almost unanimously concluding the new tools will transform it completely. The largest areas that will change are education delivery and performance: how students receive instruction and how instructors and accountability bodies can evaluate their progress.

The Internet Will Reduce Teachers Union Power

Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Terry Moe forecasts that teacher unions will die out as the revolution in information technology erodes their power over time. Technology naturally increases efficiency of labor, so schools will not need as many teachers and administrators to do the same amount of work, thus cutting the pool of potential union members, he writes.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].