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Online education gets graded

August 21, 2015

Originally written by Jonathan Butcher for Watchdog

Seven years later, we don’t know exactly how close we are to fulfilling this prediction, but evidence suggests we are certainly closer.

The U.S. Department of Education reported nearly 2 million students took an online class in 2009-10. More than half (55 percent) of districts in the department’s survey reported that students were taking distance education courses online. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning says that the number of students attending online schools full-time had increased from 200,000 students in 2009-10 to 310,000 in 2013.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education’s latest Digital Report Card explains how state policymakers have helped make such opportunities available to students. The 2014 Digital Learning Report Card ranks states based on 10 criteria, including how many students are eligible for online classes, the quality of online instruction, and whether school funding systems encourage schools to strive for course completion and high levels of student performance or just pay for students to fill a seat for 180 days each year.

The report card rankings are more middling than dismal. Many states around the country are still climbing their way out of the basement of online educational options. In 2013, 27 states earned either a D or an F on the report card, and in 2014, that number stood at 24. The only improvement of note was that nine states moved out of the F category into a higher category.

What is holding back nearly half of all states from providing high quality learning options online? U.S. Department of Education data show 94 percent of public schools have internet access. Even in schools with a high percentage of low-income students, the ratio of students to computers is approximately 3-to-1 nationwide. Clearly students have access to technology.

The report card correctly names outdated school funding formulas as one of the largest obstacles. In a welcome relief from school district and teachers union talking points, the report card says school funding is only as valuable to student learning as how it is used. “How money is spent is as important as how much money is spent on education,” write the authors. States need to abandon the practice of paying schools no matter the outcome and fund learning options based on student mastery of the subject matter.

The Goldwater Institute’s latest report, “How Online Schools Can Improve Student Achievement and Use Resources More Effectively,” explains that Florida pays for students at the statewide online school, the Florida Virtual School, with a portion of a student’s funding at the beginning of the semester and the remainder after a student has successfully completed a course. This method incentivizes the school to help students finish what they started.

And this is why we should study online learning: To promote student success. Futurists may cringe at the thought that students have achieved and will do so again without taking an online class. Yet adults’ ultimate goal should be that children have the chance at a bright future, regardless if that’s because of a physical classroom or a virtual school.

Christensen’s prediction will only matter if students have the chance to succeed, and he admits as much. “People may debate the timing, but we believe the more interesting question is whether the indisputable emergence of online learning across elementary, middle, and high schools is a good thing,” he writes in the introduction to “Blended”, a book on hybrid online- and physical-schools by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker.

No matter how many students take a class online, this will always be the most important question.



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