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Faster, Cheaper, Better

Distance education is no longer the next great phase of K-12 education. Acceptance is growing, technologies are improving and demand is rising.

Liz Pape vividly remembers the first time she conducted a presentation on the benefits of K-12 distance education courses. It was at a 1997 national conference for school administrators. The audience's reaction was anything but enthusiastic. The room was filled with doubt, apprehension and skepticism.

"Now I don't find that at all--there's been a big change," says Pape, chief executive officer at the Virtual High School in Maynard, Mass. "Now the question becomes not should [schools] do it, but how they should do it."

About 36 percent of school districts and 9 percent of public schools had students enrolled in distance ed courses in 2002-2003, according to National Center for Education statistics. The same survey showed that 328,000 public school students were enrolled in distance education courses in 2002-2003; 68 percent of those attended high school, 29 percent were in combined or ungraded schools, 2 percent were in middle or junior high schools and the remaining 1 percent was in elementary schools. (More than 15,000 districts responded to the survey, Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2002-2003.)

These growing numbers confirm what you probably already knew-- distance learning is becoming mainstream across the country. In the time since Pape's first presentation, not only has distance education become easier for districts to initiate, but its benefits have become too hard to ignore. Many administrators point to the exposure students receive to a variety of courses ranging from AP biology to Caribbean art history--that may not be offered at their own school. Others save money because their districts don't require as many teachers or, if they offer such courses, supplement their budget by charging registration fees to students outside their district. By achieving more value with less money, some educators predict that distance education will be available in every school district in the U.S. within the next decade.

Growing Potential

Examples of this trend can be found at schools like VHS. Since it became a nonprofit in 2001, enrollment has climbed from 3,736 to more than 6,000 students who represent 280 high schools in 26 states and 14 different countries, including Peru and South Korea, Pape says. Schools pay an annual membership fee starting at $6,500--for up to 50 students--and receive access to 170 online courses, which are all in English and mostly target students in grades 9-12.

The NCES report adds both credibility and validity to distance education, Pape says. The U.S. Department of Education also boosted the value of distance learning by adding a goal to its National Education Technology Plan that states, "Every student should have an e-learning or virtual school opportunity."

One surprising result of the survey was that almost half--49 percent--of the responding school districts primarily used two-way interactive video to deliver courses. Thirty-five percent selected Internet courses using asynchronous computer-based instruction, 9 percent selected Internet courses using real-time computer-based instruction, 7 percent chose one-way prerecorded video and 1 percent used other technologies.

One reason districts use more videoconferencing than the Internet may be more related to the comfort level of administrators than the benefits of the technology, Pape says, explaining that since district decision-makers represent older generations, they have a predisposition toward TV rather than the Internet.

"But when you look at this generation [of students], they actually spend more time on the Internet than they do watching TV so we do have to make that consideration of what is native to them," Pape says. "The Internet is definitely the mechanism for them."

Yet, it's that same lack of familiarity and confidence in technology that has slowed the process of schools adopting distance learning. As more research promotes its advantages, she says additional districts will hop on board.

It's Better Online

There's one benefit brick-and-mortar schools can't deliver. Students enrolled at virtual schools collaborate in an online environment with other students from around the country or world. They become engaged in online discussions with people from different backgrounds and cultures, which are essential to their development both as students and world citizens, Pape adds.

Likewise, online courses can be more challenging than those offered by schools. The survey found that more than 45,000 students--or 14 percent--were enrolled in AP courses.

"When we have limited ability in many of our schools to realize college level or AP courses, that's a really promising trend," says Susan Patrick, director at the DOE's Office of Educational Technology. "How do we offer rigorous, quality education for all students? This is definitely one way to do it."

And the subjects students choose range across the spectrum, from 23 percent of all enrollments in social sciences, 19 percent in English, 15 percent in math, 12 percent in science and 12 in foreign languages, according to the NCES report.

Patrick says if educators in small districts or rural areas consider the expense of offering college-level courses that only a handful of students may be interested in, online education becomes a cost effective alternative to hiring a teacher. Educators need to re-evaluate the advantages of distance learning in terms of cost savings and providing more value for students, she adds.

But online education does have potential flaws. Quality measures must be introduced and enforced as they are in traditional classroom environments. Just like consumer reports that evaluate everything from toasters to cars, distance education courses need to be assessed based on multiple factors, such as the quality of instruction and effectiveness of the curriculum and content.

Meanwhile, Patrick says online courses help students become technically literate and better prepare them for the 21st century workforce where they'll be using a variety of technologies on a daily basis.

"Any student has the opportunity to take courses that were never available to them before," she says. "These are the opportunities that technology brings--to give access to kids all over the country a variety of different subject areas. That's what I get excited about."

Growth Will Continue

Still, some advocates of distance education strongly support blended learning, where students are enrolled in both traditional and online courses.

"I would not want my child to do everything online," says Julie Young, president and chief executive officer at FLVS in Orlando. "It eliminates that face-to-face component. It's important to prepare kids for both environments.

FLVS is expecting enrollment at its virtual school to reach 27,000 this year. All 67 school districts in the state participate in its 115 free online courses while nearly 600 students outside the district enroll on a tuition basis. The state's legislation requires that all Florida public schools make FLVS available to their students and inform parents of this option.

The students who struggle in an online learning environment are those who require strong guidance or face-to-face interaction. Even if students read a passage in an online course that's confusing, Young says they have the option of contacting the teacher by phone or e-mail or re-reading the information. In most cases, they re-read it, she says, which encourages students to be more diligent in solving problems.

Several years ago, Colorado's DOE spent about $400,000 annually to support
cyberschools. Now, it spends $23 million.

As this generation moves into the teaching profession, she says they'll be so accustomed to using a computer throughout their day, that technology and online learning will become as ubiquitous as textbooks and incorporated into classroom instruction with little thought.

That's slowly becoming a reality. The NCES report reveals that 72 percent of districts with students enrolled in distance education programs plan to expand their course offerings in the future. However, 68 percent of public school districts pointed to course development and purchasing costs as key reasons that would prevent them from doing so. Other concerns include course quality (37 percent), receiving funding based on attendance (36 percent), limited infrastructure (33 percent) and restrictive federal and state or local laws or policies (17 percent).

Young hopes that within five years, all districts adopt a blended learning approach. She says online learning enhances student concentration because there's less distraction and may even reduce dropout rates because students can take more time to master complex subjects like math or science.

Colorado's Growth

Several years ago, William Moloney says his office was spending about $400,000 annually in subsidies to support students attending cyberschool. Moloney, commissioner of education for the state of Colorado, recalls how parents from across the state testified before the state board of education, complaining that their children were left out of the educational system because they lived in remote school districts. As a result, the state DOE, state legislature and other government entities opened the door for distance learning. Now his department spends an estimated $23 million annually in pupil subsidies.

Right now, he says education is about boundaries. But boundaries will become more blurred as distance education gains ground. "Online learning is the 800-pound gorilla of choice," he says. "It's not very often that you can say we're dramatically improving program quality and, at the same time, we're dramatically lowering program costs."

Educators can also look to the past for guidance. Don Knezek, chief executive officer at the International Society for Technology in Education, recalls lessons learned in the late 1980s from satellite-delivered instruction. While some students performed poorly in this environment, others scored as well as those in traditional classrooms, especially when on-site supervisors were present.

So as education moves forward, he says school administrators must examine the needs of all students and explore different avenues, including distance education.

"Viewing online instruction as a promise for a one-size-fits-all for all of our students is fool-hardy," he says. "It's the responsibility of administrators to look at all resources to meet the needs of students in the best way within their reach."

Carol Patton is a freelance writer who specializes in education.