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Five Trends in Online Learning

Though online learning is by no means new, it has been rapidly increasing in popularity over the past decade. “Since about 2002, online learning has been growing nationally at about an average of 30 percent each year,” says Allison Powell, vice president of the International Association for Online Learning (iNACOL).

In addition, 45 of the 50 states, and Washington, D.C., have a state virtual school or online initiative, full-time online schools, or both, according to the 2009 report “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning.” Online learning offers innovative programs within school districts and internationally.

Beyond the benefits for traditional K12 students as a supplement to in-classroom curriculum, online learning offers innovative programs within school districts and some programs involve students from all over the world, as well as an alternative to home schooling and remedial classes. It also can provide a second chance for students who have dropped out of school.

Here are some areas where online learning can make a difference.

Individualized Education Plan

Useful for all students, individualized education plans (IEPs) help special needs students hone in on the exact areas they are struggling with to bring them up to speed, while allowing them to advance more quickly through material on which they have a firm grasp.

“If a student is in the third grade but has a first-grade math level and a sixth-grade reading level, we can accommodate both of those needs without the student being lost or held back in any area, as would happen in a traditional school,” says Allison Powell.

iNACOL, which is a non-profit association, provides technical assistance, conducts research and provides advocacy in the field of online learning.

Many state-funded online learning programs such as Idaho Digital Learning Academy, Maryland Virtual Learning Opportunities Program, and Alabama Online High School also have standards in place for working with students who have IEPs. These programs make information, resources and additional teaching staff accessible for students with disabilities while following the standards of each state they work in.

Homeschool Alternative

Giving parents the resources they need to make their child’s homeschool experience as versatile and comprehensive as possible, online learning companies such as K12 Inc. allow students to partner with local school districts for a free education. “Now students have the full curriculum, a licensed teacher to answer questions, and a parent to assist,” says Powell.

Courses provide office hours with teachers online and in person when possible, forums for critical feedback, and opportunities for students to collaborate on projects with other students both in person and over the Internet.

Programs also include field trips, social organizations such as online newspaper clubs and National Honor Society, and formal events like proms organized through online learning institutions such as K12 Inc., which has provided over 1.5 million online courses since 1999. Districts such as Wyoming Virtual Schools provide funding and equipment for all K6 students, allowing them to receive a free online education.

Remedial Option

Perhaps the fastest-growing trend in online learning, credit recovery has seen a substantial increase in popularity. “Aventa’s credit recovery program has grown by five times since 2008. There is major demand for quality online credit recovery programs to augment district programs,” says Gregg Levin, vice president of Aventa Learning.

Aventa offers a separate catalog of courses geared toward underperforming students and nonnative English speakers. Students seeking to recover credit from failed classes can enroll in classes through Aventa or other companies such as Florida Virtual Schools and Insight Schools of Minnesota.

“Now we’re seeing the biggest growth is for credit recovery, because schools can’t afford to pay for the students to take classes over and over again,” says Jodie Pozo-Olano of Florida Virtual Schools.

Innovative Partnerships

Schools such as Chesapeake High School in Baltimore, Md., are employing virtual reality simulations to enhance student learning in an engaging way. Partnering with Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Chesapeake High School has instituted a virtual reality classroom that allows students to study Mount St. Helens in Washington state without stepping off campus.

The classroom, which consists of 10 high-definition TV screens, each 72 inches wide, arranged in two five-screen semi-circles, allows students to “study the area from whatever perspective we choose to,” says George Newberry, an earth science teacher at Chesapeake who regularly uses the facility. “We are able to place things into that world—everything from 3-D objects and video clips to avatars and talking heads,” he adds. An adjacent classroom holds 30 individual workstations, each equipped with three monitors that show the same scenarios as the larger screens, allowing teachers to give one-on-one attention to students.

“It’s given us the opportunity to branch out into a whole new direction in terms of the curriculum we’re developing for students,” says Newberry. The simulated 300 square-mile area of Mount St. Helens allows traditional science, math and language arts curricula to be taught through a specific and engaging lens.

Returning Students

Working collaboratively with public school districts as well as charter schools, online learning companies such as Aventa have made it possible for students through their early 20s who have dropped out to earn the credit they need to receive their GED. Most companies allow any student under 21 to take classes, and at times designed to accommodate various schedules.

Whether that means taking a class at 9 a.m. on Monday or 10 p.m. on Saturday, this flexible option makes degree completion possible for any student. Advanced Academics also offers free classes for returning full- and part-time students throughout the country based on school district.