Online Learning Gains Popularity at K-12 Levels

09/11/2011 - Online learning, used in both exlusive and "blended" methods, is becoming increasingly popular at the primary and secondary school levels in the USA, Canada and around the world.

The rapid evolution of technology and incredible expansion of information communication technologies (ICTs) across the globe are perhaps the defining characteristics of today’s generation of youth.

Computers, Internet and other advancements are increasingly used in elementary and high schools, while online courses at the post-secondary level have proliferated.

Is the next phase of the technological revolution in education virtual schooling?

From November 9 to 11, members of the Washington, DC-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) will convene in Indianapolis, USA, to discuss this very trend.

iNACOL is a unique partnership of school districts, US charter schools, state education authorizes, non-profit organizations, post-secondary institutions, research groups, corporations and technology providers.

More than 1,800 educators, school administrators and policy experts from the US and abroad will attend iNACOL’s annual Virtual School Symposium (VSS). The conference is the largest yearly event focusing on online and “blended” (mixed method, classroom and online) learning from kindergarten to grade twelve.

Susan Patrick is the President and CEO of iNACOL. “Online learning for primary and secondary students is growing at an astonishing speed," she said in a press release, naming it the “fastest innovation in education.”

Million of children, through kindergarten to high school, are enrolled in online and blended learning courses. Ms. Patrick affirms that the work has the benefit of being challenging and accessible “anytime, anyplace.”

Online education is proffered as a learning solution that personalizes instruction for each child – a method filled with engaging content and one-on-one learning interventions under a diverse array of curriculum contents. It is particularly useful in times when school boards are grappling with serious financial pressures, Ms. Patrick observes.

The VSS conference will present trends, analyses and new research on virtual learning. Workshops will teach learning models, how-to session for getting online programmes up-and-running, as well as best practices for evaluation.

According to a study released at the conference, Online and Blended Learning: A Survey of Policy and Practice of K-12 Schools Around the World, 60 per cent of the 60-plus countries involved in the study reported using government funding for blended or full-time virtual learning at the primary and secondary levels.

However, a report released last month by University of Colorado researchers found that full-time virtual schools are largely unregulated, raising quality and oversight issues. The spread of virtual learning also comes without research on its impact on children, both young and old. Critics also warn that such schools rob students of vital socialization experiences, the Washington Post reported.

Virtual schooling has grown increasingly popular in the US. More than 200,000 students are enrolled in them full-time, without fact-to-face contact with teachers or classmates. They generally operate similarly to charter school – outside the traditional system but still funded by taxes.

The University of Colorado researchers recommend such improvements to virtual learning as authentication of students’ work, accreditation of providers, and financial audits of providers’ work.

According to the Canadian Council on Learning, 36 per cent of Canadian secondary school students were taking online courses in 2003-2004, with virtual high schools become increasingly widespread. The Council noted the importance of virtual high schools to students living in remote areas.

E-learning is also of interest to education experts in the developing world. According to the Survey of ICT and Education in Africa, authored by the World Bank’s Information for Development Program, “The need for digital learning materials relevant to local curricula is becoming more urgent as ICT becomes integrated into the teaching process across the curriculum.”