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Attending High School, Virtually, Online

By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist

A while back, I asked what the future of higher education might look like with the advent of distance learning. Even in just the last couple years, online education in higher-ed has grown enormously. A recent study by the Sloan Consortium reported that more than 6 million U.S. students (nearly a third of all students in college) took at least one online course in 2006, an increase of more than half a million students over the previous year.

It’s not surprising that forward-looking institutions of higher learning have been quick to embrace the potential of online coursework. What I never anticipated (although certainly others did) was how quickly online education would take hold in primary and secondary (K through 12) schools as well.

In a February 2012 bulletin, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) reported that:

  • 40 states have virtual schools or state-led initiatives, and 30 states plus Washington, DC, have statewide full-time online schools.
  • More than 1.8 million students (mostly high school students) enrolled in online distance-learning courses during the 2009/2010 school year (up from less than 50,000 total enrollments a decade ago).
  • 74 percent of school districts with distance education programs planned to expand their online offerings in the next three years.

Leading Drivers for Online Education

Whether used in college or in high school, the biggest motivator for online education is exposing students to courses to which they otherwise would not have access. This makes sense: according to the College Board (as reported by iNACOL), just one third of school districts offer advanced placement courses in English, math, social studies, and science.

Online courses in these subjects offer a low-cost way for districts to challenge their high-achieving students with classes that they could not otherwise make available, and help students earn credits for college. (Typically, the classes are offered remotely by universities or independent online learning institutions.)

Online learning is also benefiting students at the other end of the spectrum, helping high schoolers recover course credits from missed or failed classes. The ability to replace summer school classrooms with online courses is a huge boon to cash-strapped districts that have been steadily cutting back budgets for summer school programs.

Ryan Lytle recently profiled three national online summer school programs in the U.S. News, noting:

Students who want or need to earn high school credits during the summer used to rely on school districts to provide summer school options. Now, due to difficult budgetary times, many districts have been forced to slash those programs.

In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District cut roughly 95 percent of its summer school programs, while The School District of Philadelphia can now only offer free summer school options to seniors.

As in-class summer options dwindle, online programs are offering students alternatives to earn high school credits.

In Chino, California, the Chino Valley school district experienced the popularity of these programs firsthand with an overwhelming response to its online summer school program — 1400 enrollees, up from 650 last year.

Growing Possibilities for Online Learning Offerings

Clearly, students and parents are embracing the online learning option. California South Bay newspaper The Daily Breeze recently profiled Angelica Pronto, one of the small but growing group if U.S. students who completed her entire junior-high and high school education from home, with an online charter school.

Many adults who never completed high school are also now taking advantage of online classes. Even movie stars are doing it — Mark Wahlberg recently told David Letterman he was going back to virtual school to get his diploma through a state program in Massachusetts.

Online learning tools are also growing within the classroom, as well as outside of it. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School recently spoke to Fox News about the Khan Academy and the potential for online learning to supplement — and ultimately transform — the K-12 classroom.

The possibilities are exciting, and the online learning revolution is clearly moving quickly, bolstered by continuous expansion and improvements in broadband connectivity. It will be interesting to follow this story over the next several years.

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2 Comments.


  1. Interesting read, I myself have taken classes online. The benefits are great, but I still feel like I get more out of a traditional classroom setting. It’s easy to lose focus when studying online, too many distracting web apps to play with….

       0 likes

    • David Deans

      @James C,

      Understood, regarding the potential benefits of a classroom experience, but some students simply don’t have that luxury.

      They will gladly stay focused — in an online setting — because it’s in their vested interest (learning and growing, against the odds).

         0 likes