Online education will not replace place-based schools, but it could free teachers to focus more on students and professional development.
The rise of online schooling has gained much attention of late. 45 states (plus D.C.) have established virtual school programs (1). 495,000 students are enrolled in full or part-time online programs, 0.9% of the total national K-12 enrollment (1). Institutions such as Stanford University, the Oregon Virtual Education Center, and the Online School for Girls have launched successfully and then grown quickly. Some wonder whether online schools will quickly replace place-based schools. I doubt it, based on the history of other technology innovations.
School systems inherently resist sweeping changes. They broadly distribute decision-making authority across the institution, making rapid change nearly impossible. Wide gaps persist among education research, practice, and policy.Teachers still largely control the learning environment once the classroom door closes. Teaching has largely resisted trends toward professionalization such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In this environment, online schools are unlikely to take over as the dominant model for 9-12 education.
Could individual cost vs. value decisions lead to an education revolution? Again, I doubt it. Most efforts to impose economies of scale on teaching have fallen flat. Large, urban school districts were intended to streamline school administration but instead caused bureaucratic bloat and worsened inequities among schools. Technology-based instruction may work well for content delivery and basic assessment, but teaching involves so much more than content delivery and skills practice. Responsiveness to student needs requires individualization only possible with a low student-to-teacher ratio.
It is more likely — and more consistent with other technology innovations — that online education will find its niche within the education landscape. What online courses are most popular? Economics, psychology, world languages, computer science (3): highly applied subjects that do not satisfy college entrance requirements. Place-based schools do not consistently offer courses in these subjects due to low enrollment, but online schools draw from a much larger pool of potential students and are typically not responsible for a student’s entire academic program.
65% of Catlin Gabel high school courses have only one section. This causes significant pressure on teacher planning time and schedule constraints. At the same time, these highly specialized courses are among the most highly prized of the junior and senior course offerings. The school that accepts credit for online courses makes available a much broader selection of highly applied, engaging subjects at low cost to itself. This has the potential to reduce the number of “singleton” courses, easing pressure on teaching planning time and scheduling.
If online courses become popular, won’t some teachers have a reduced course load? Yes, and that would be a wonderful thing. In an age of electronic course materials, the need for teachers to deliver course content is greatly reduced. Teachers can focus on the interactive aspects of teaching: facilitating discussions, assessing student learning, building rich, interdisciplinary and real-world connections, and advising young men and women as they pursue their studies.
Teaching fewer periods would make it easier to meet with students and other teachers. Professional development, so long under-emphasized in schools, could really take off. Place-based schools would specialize in highly personalized, caring environments for learning and personal growth.
(1) “K-12 Online Learning: A Literature Review“, National Association Of Independent Schools, April 2010.
(2) Clark, Tom. “Online Learning: Pure Potential” Educational Leadership Vol 65 No 8, May 2008
(3) Booth, Susan. “In the Virtual Schoolhouse: Highlights of NAIS’s Survey on K-12 Online Learning” Independent School, Winter 2011