An increasingly large number of K through 12 students (in the tens of thousands or more) are getting some or all of their education on line. Typically, the on line resources are provided by private corporate vendors contracting to individuals or in some cases school districts, and the target audience tends to be middle school or high school.
School districts and teachers (including unions) are typically reticent to support this shift. While such groups may be resisting online offerings because it constitutes direct competition, they also have valid complaints that online learning, like homeschooling, fails to provide certain benefits that a school community can provide.
There is a very well done story on this in the International Herald Tribune.
It will be interesting to see how this develops. In some ways, the online “movement” (and it is starting to look a little like a movement) is a little like the homeschooling movement, because it is fueled by parent’s dislike of schools. It is very different, however, because in many cases, online programs are run by, or filtered through, school districts, so there is regulation parallel to what happens in schools, and required testing.
I would expect the users of online learning services to divide into factions because of this difference. Many homeschoolers are politically motivated to shun any sort of regulation (there is a strong Libertarian faction among homeschooling families, as far as I can tell). They will be no happier having their kids in a school district’s online community than having them in school. This is a bit of a shame, because online learning may provide these families with what they are really looking for, but the staunch political views of the parents might cause them to make an inappropriate decision. On the other hand, many homeschooled children may benefit from online programs that offer all or some of their pedagogy, because online curriculum and content designed and delivered by education experts may be better than mom in the basement with a used English grammar book.
I mentioned above that teachers may oppose this. In truth, this may be less of an issue than it might seem at first. I have seen the relief experienced by teachers when the trouble making creationist-trained tarts who have been bringing bibles and creation science literature to class everyday stop showing up because they are being homeschooled. (Indeed, I’d love to know if there is a spike in homeschooling by age of student during years in which Life Science is taught! I’d wager there is…). I think that if children have been indocternated by their parents into thinking that school is an evil place, those children may be happier at home and the teachers may find that their classes run more smoothly without them.
At the University of Minnesota, we are increasingly developing online offerings for college students. In a state like Minnesota, with expansive rural areas and a geographically concentrated higher education infrastructure, this may be the best way to deliver higher ed opportunities to an education-hungry population. I believe that at this moment, it is difficult or impossible to get an online-only degree at The U, but do not be surprised if this changes over the next few years.
People’s opinions about online learning are as diverse as are online delivery strategies themselves. Many online courses have non-online components, including brief seminars, labs, and testing scenarios. Some people cannot fathom how one would develop a sense of community with other learners, faculty, and so on in an online setting, and perhaps these individuals are not likely to do so because of their experience and orientation (or lack thereof) to the Internet. Others are already participating in vibrant, and real, virtual communities, or would easily adapt to this subculture. It might be nice to develop an online course that addresses this specific issue.
A question that comes to mind is this: If, in a few years, a few hundred thousand students are finishing high school with substantial experience in online learning, how will that affect what colleges and universities do? (Must do, can do, and want to do?)