Emma Collins, a web writer who just edited a compendium of online education’s best MBA programs by MBAOnline, joins Virtual School Meanderings today to lend some insight to the growing trend of Internet-based learning. Cyber schools are becoming more and more popular, but they are not without their critics. This post should hopefully start a vibrant discussion about the future of education, both on and off-line. As is the tradition at Virtual School Meanderings, this will be the only entry today.
Since the Internet was first introduced to the public in the mid-1990s, online technology has played an ever-increasing role in public education. Today, blended coursework and virtual schools are replacing traditional teaching methods at a substantial rate, while education startups – led by tech-savvy “edupreneurs” – aim in many ways to “disrupt” conventional educational practices with web-based programs.
The field of online education has grown immensely in the last decade alone. According to a report by Innosight Institute titled “The Rise of Blended Learning,” approximately 45,000 public school students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2000. Nine years later, that number had risen to more than 3 million. Furthermore, experts predict that at least half of all high school classes will be taught online by 2019.
The online surge has also impacted the number of homeschooled children. The number of students who learned from home more than doubled between 1999 and 2009, and this is largely due to the growing number of exclusively web-based educational institutions. Elementary and high schools are not the only ones to record substantial growth in online course enrollments, either. According to US News & World Report, more than 6 million American college students enrolled in at least one online course in Fall 2010 – a 10.1 percent increase over the previous year.
The report’s authors note that online learning exhibits the traits of a “disruptive innovation,” which essentially transforms a particular sector by replacing “complicated, expensive, inaccessible, and centralized” services with alternatives that are more affordable, user-friendly, and – in many cases – customizable to meet the needs of a specific group (such as an individual classroom). Web-based learning began as a service for children who learned from home, attended financially deficient schools or otherwise had no other alternative for receiving an effective education. Today, school districts across the country have begun to use web technology to create a blended learning environment.
As the name suggests, blended learning supplements traditional classroom education with varying levels of supervised online coursework. These courses not only prepare students for the technology-saturated job market they will encounter as adults, but also mitigates some of the budgetary pressures facing schools today. The report suggests that, for these reasons, blended classrooms are the optimal solution for several problems that educators currently face. “Online learning has the potential to be a disruptive force that will transform the factory-like, monolithic structure that has dominated America’s schools into a new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive, as it delivers dramatically better results at the same or lower cost,” the report states.
Tom Clark, Co-editor of Virtual Schools: Planning for Success, agrees that blended coursework is effectively reshaping the country’s educational dynamic. In addition, he notes another growing trend: virtual schools. These institutions generally fall under three categories. State-run virtual schools, contrary to their name, are not degree-granting institutions; rather, they provide online services to K-12 students and assist school districts with the integration of technology into their standard curricula. Virtual charter schools, on the other hand, provide full-time, tuition-free distance learning opportunities (typically for K-8 students). State charter laws govern these programs. Finally, privately operated virtual schools – like traditional private institutions – charge tuition for full- or part-time online learning programs. While both virtual charter schools and private virtual schools may act as “schools of record,” school districts may also work with them to develop online programs in public classrooms.
As a growing number of school districts have implemented blended coursework in the nation’s classrooms, many critics have raised concerns over the effectiveness of web-based learning. However, Clark writes that many of these worries are unfounded. Contrary to popular misconception, he notes, online coursework is not unsupervised, and students are not isolated from teachers and peers. Rather, most online modules enable teachers to regularly communicate with students online – and many require face-to-face consultations throughout the course. Furthermore, most K-12 students who take online courses are only enrolled part-time or for particular classes, so they are still able to regularly attend high school; in this sense, online courses increase (not decrease) the number of teachers and peers with which a student is able to interact. Other critics have complained that digital coursework, when compared with traditional classroom learning, is too easy. However, Clark argues that most virtual schools operate in accordance with state education department regulations, and certified teachers lead the individual courses.
In addition to virtual schools, many educational startups have emerged in recent years to tackle specific concerns related to today’s learners by introducing elements of online technology. One example is Nearpod, a company that develops educational apps for iOS and Android devices that can be used in classrooms. Nearpod is the brainchild of edupreneur Felipe Sommer, who told EdTech Digest that educators may use the apps to perform a range of tasks, from checking attendance and monitoring grades to developing interactive lesson plans and engaging classes with multimedia. Another innovative edupreneur, Nic Borg, recently developed Edmodo – a customizable social networking tool that can be used exclusively in the classroom. “Our goal was to develop a space that allowed teachers, students and schools to connect in a more engaging way while keeping students safe and protected,” he told EdTech Digest, adding that Edmodo’s platform enables students and teachers to exchange information, access homework and perform other classroom functions in real-time. Companies like Nearpod and Edmodo that offer unique, technology-based services are helping today’s educators meet their classroom’s increasing digital demands — and ensuring their own long-term market viability in the process.
Between the growing number of blended classrooms and virtual schools in the U.S. and the ever-expanding edupreneur sector, technology stands to greatly disrupt the state of American education in the coming years. As this nationwide shift takes place, teachers and students will receive more opportunities to learn, interact and prepare for future success in the digital world.
Emma Collins is a web writer who just edited a compendium of online education’s best MBA programs by MBAOnline. As is the tradition at Virtual School Meanderings, this will be the only entry today.