In the past five years as CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, I have witnessed tremendous growth in the use of online learning as a solution for today's students. In recent years, there is a new trend taking the best instructional models and technology tools from student-centered, online courses and bringing the designs and flexibility that online learning affords into our brick-and-mortar classrooms.
In the next five years, I expect tremendous growth in blended learning as a way for America's school districts to confront a number of challenges—continuing budget constraints, a diminished range of course offerings, teacher shortages in hard-to-staff areas such as STEM—and to deal with ever-increasing pressure to boost performance. With so much on the line, many traditional schools are turning to online and blended learning solutions as a way to more easily scale high-quality learning for all students.
We are part of an important movement; the rapid pace of enrollment growth represents the fastest mainstream adoption of any innovation in K12 education. In 1999, there were fewer than 50,000 students enrolled in online courses. Today, there are an estimated 4 million students enrolled in K12 online or blended learning programs.
Research Is Necessary
The U.S. Department of Education is also supportive of this growth, citing online education in the National Education Technology Plan released a year ago, and the National Broadband Plan as important innovations. Department officials understand that there is a need for more research in K12 online and blended learning to understand which interventions work best with which groups of students.
The existing research is sparse. In a 2009 attempt to review existing rigorous (control group) studies in online and blended learning programs in K12 and higher education, the Education Department's study "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies" concluded that students in online and blended learning courses outperformed students in traditional classrooms.
The study cited the extended learning time and personalization by design in blended learning environments as reasons for better attainment of student learning. Districts and schools such as VOISE Academy in Chicago, Carpe Diem in Arizona, KIPP in Los Angeles and Rocketship in San Jose, Calif., are embracing blended learning and seeing the results in improved student outcomes, as well. They are also realizing additional advantages for students, teachers and administrators, including better access to data for personalizing instruction and dashboards for leaders to improve decision making.
The good news for district leaders seeking to implement blended learning programs is the flexibility; there is no "one size fits all" to implementation. Instead, the programs are shaped by their goals. Is the school looking to increase overall student proficiency? Improve high school graduation rates? Enhance foreign-language or college-level course offerings? Boost math and literacy rates? Administrators moving toward blended learning programs must first articulate their objectives before developing an implementation plan.
There are a number of other important issues that school leaders and administrators must tackle before implementing online learning. Don't forget the importance of community outreach—sharing the trends in online and blended learning, how your teachers are involved, what it looks like for students, and what they can expect—before you start a new program. Stakeholders, including parents and students, should be informed of the process and be given opportunities for feedback. Administrators will need to consider redesigned teacher training and professional development. Product offerings will need to be evaluated for the best quality and fit for each school district's needs.
Critically, local and state policies that help or hinder online learning must also be addressed. The single biggest barrier to adoption is funding that is based on seat-time, which restricts what is possible in a blended learning environment. States need to offer seat-time waivers and other flexibilities that allow credits to be redefined as competencies, which require students to achieve mastery before moving to the next level.
Another obstacle is procurement. Old-fashioned rules can restrict how funds are spent on instructional materials and can favor textbooks over digital learning. This is rapidly changing, but it remains a problem in about half of the states.
We will continue to push the field of K12 education through new, innovative models of online and blended learning. Quality is key, and together we can ensure that all students have access to a world-class education no matter where they live.
Administrators can learn how to get started on developing their own implementation plan in How to Start an Online Program. Details are available at www.virtualschoolsymposium.org.
Susan Patrick is president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.