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Professional Opinion

Rethinking the Traditional School Model

Online learning has transformative powers.

Over the past decade, online learning has risen to become one of the fastest growing sectors in education and certainly one of the most intriguing. Today, more and more students at all levels of education—elementary to postsecondary—are opting to take courses online. It is a testament to the effectiveness of this model of education.

Throughout most of the 1990s, online learning in grades K-12 was virtually nonexistent. Today, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, it is estimated that well over a million students in grades K-12 are engaged in online learning, and the numbers are growing by more than 30 percent each year. The number of postsecondary students choosing to learn online is even higher. School districts are rapidly moving toward offering online school programs—whether supplemental or full-time—and a growing number of states are developing policy frameworks to enable online learning to accommodate the exploding demand from parents and students.

Challenging Old Constructs

To be sure, online learning continues to face its share of critics, primarily because it challenges decades-old constructs of how children should be educated. It is no longer true that quality learning can only occur in a school building, or that teachers can only provide effective instruction inside a four-walled classroom.

Virtual schools are the most public of all public schools.

Why the demand for online schools? The key is individualized learning and flexibility. Parents and educators know that all children are not the same. For years, people have asked whether the online education experience is equivalent to the classroom experience. I believe that is a flawed question. Online learning should not be the same. It should be different. It should be exceptional.

Students have different education needs and possess various strengths, weaknesses, learning styles and habits. The ability of online schools to provide individualized learning programs that meet the needs of every student is perhaps their greatest contribution to education. It means that students don’t have to feel as if they are racing ahead or falling behind their peers.

Another strong appeal is that online schools finally provide a viable option by which all students, regardless of where they live or what their economic situation is, can be part of the same school community. Online schools provide students of diverse backgrounds—from rural or urban communities, high-income or low-income neighborhoods—the ability to interact and share their experiences in ways we never dreamed possible. It is why I believe virtual schools are the most public of all public schools.

Offering Creative Solutions

While online learning will not erase every problem facing our education system, it is proving to be a solution to a number of challenges. School administrators are recognizing the efficiencies and quality academic programs that can be delivered through online learning. Teachers are heralding the multiple new opportunities to teach, assess and interact with students using computer-based tools. Parents are excited about the new education opportunities and individualized learning programs for their kids. And tens of thousands of new students every year become engaged and excited about learning, with a renewed sense of ownership of their education.

I have been involved in online education since I founded K12 Inc. in 2000. Through K12, I’ve had the great opportunity to partner with some of the most talented and innovative school leaders in the United States. They too have dared to be entrepreneurial, risking successes and setbacks, in order to help forge best practices in online learning. In doing so, they have become the most effective ambassadors for this model of education.

Online schools are here to stay, and their demand and popularity will only increase. If online education practitioners continuously adapt to the changing needs of teachers and students, pursue innovation and never remain static, then online learning will remain a dynamic and transformative force in education.

Ron Packard is the founder and CEO of K12 Inc., a provider of proprietary curriculum and K12 online school programs.