Online learning is the new buzz in K-12 education. Commentators routinely predict that online learning will play a vital role in American society, helping to make lifelong learning available "any time, any place." In Colorado, more than 20 online programs are operating—including 2 virtual charter schools (one for alternative high school students, the other for home-schoolers in grades K-5), 3 district-based comprehensive online high schools, and 1 consortium-based program that provides high school courses to half of the state's school districts.
In order to understand the impact of this phenomenon and determine what course the state should set, the Colorado Department of Education formed an e-learning task force in fall 2001. The task force has recommended that a statewide organization be formed to sponsor online learning for K-12 students and educators. The task force members concluded that a statewide program could provide equity of opportunity for all Colorado learners, assure that online courses available throughout the state meet rigorous standards of quality, and take advantage of economies of scale through the use of common technology, content, and standards. The task force adopted a plan for making the new statewide program (Colorado Online Learning, or COL) operational by November 2002 (Kalmon & Watson, 2002).
But what kind of statewide program? As we looked at state programs elsewhere (of which there are at least 16, with many more on the way) and discussed the issues and needs in Colorado, we agreed on four principles to guide our planning:
- The statewide online learning program should support schools, not become a school.
- The statewide program should collaborate with other online learning programs.
- The statewide program should meet a broad range of educational needs.
- The statewide program should support a broad range of learners.
Taken together, these organizational and educational principles support development of an online learning network that balances interests that are often in conflict. They promote equity—for both students and institutions—while rewarding individual achievement. They assure quality and consistency while adapting to diverse learner and institutional needs. We believe that this combination of principles not only provides the best opportunity for meeting the online learning needs in our state, but suggests a model for other states as well.
Principle 1: Supporting Physical Schools
Colorado's statewide online program will not be an autonomous virtual school that replaces physical ("brick-and-mortar") schools. It will extend the learning opportunities available to students and educators in those schools, but it will keep the locus of learning in the local, physical setting. Four components of the COL program incorporate this intention:
- The statewide online program will not grant diplomas. Students taking online courses will receive diplomas from local physical schools upon completion of those schools' graduation requirements.
- The statewide online program will not take per-pupil funding away from physical schools. The program's revenue will come through state appropriations, grant funds, and course fees.
- Students will enroll in statewide online courses through local physical schools, obtaining registration and counseling support through a counselor or school-appointed online learning coordinator (a practice already followed by the member-districts in the state's consortium-based online learning program).
- While taking statewide online courses, students will get support (e.g., mentoring, tutoring, and access to computers and Internet connectivity) through local physical schools (also a practice followed in the state's consortium-based online learning program and supported in part by statewide funds).
These components reflect the principle that online learning should complement, not compete with, physical schools. If successful, online learning will contribute enormously to changing the way we do schooling in this country. It will, for instance, encourage both students and educators to expand their vision of learning. Starting with credit for individual online courses, educators may learn to build integrated curricula that incorporate online components, then (perhaps) community-based and experiential learning that enrich classroom-bound learning. Such features will influence our understanding of the role and structure of schooling. But online learning programs should not be designed to take students away from school; instead, they should bring more learning to students in school.
School brings people together, and serves all people in the community. Few institutions in postmodern America can make that claim. While schools need to change and improve in order to help all students achieve, our society can meet that challenge only through collective will and action. If online learning becomes yet another wedge that takes some students and families—especially those who are exceptionally self-motivated—away from the rest, then it will undermine the most important remaining democratic institution in this country.
Principle 2: Collaborating with Other Online Programs
Online programs in Colorado have developed in a piecemeal and often competitive fashion. If this trend continues, quantity and profit, rather than quality and service, may dominate the online learning "marketplace." Disparities in learners' financial resources and schools' technological capabilities will widen traditional gaps between the haves and have-nots. Enrollment fees for online high school courses have been quoted from $300 to $795 per course. If Colorado online programs continue to operate independently and somewhat competitively, they will meet the needs of only a limited number of students.
Colorado Online Learning will replace competitive anarchy with a cooperative network. First, through state and grant funding, COL will reduce the price of online learning, charging a basic fee of $100 for every course enrollment (and providing scholarship aid to ensure that no student is precluded from taking a course because of the fee). This fee structure will help to eliminate the financially based inequities that are being created, and may help to discourage the proliferation of online programs that are motivated primarily by profit. Second, the statewide organization will coordinate the efforts of the various online programs within the state (Exhibit 1) by offering courses developed by existing programs under a statewide umbrella. Through its "brokering" role, the statewide program will ensure that courses meet high standards of quality. For instance, all statewide courses will be based on the Colorado Model Content Standards; their design will be reviewed by content and instructional experts employed by COL. The organizations that provide courses for use by COL will draw revenue and gain prestige because the courses will be available on a coordinated, statewide platform. Through this system, the collaborating programs will provide much of the online curriculum, and COL will create or purchase/lease courses to fill needs not met through collaboration.
This approach achieves the advantages of an educational marketplace while avoiding its pitfalls. The continued existence of numerous online programs will encourage the enterprise of the various online organizations in the state. Statewide brokering will ensure quality, equity, and more efficient use of resources.
Principle 3: Meeting Broad-based Educational Needs
Online high school programs often focus on the core of the curriculum or on niche courses like advanced placement (AP) sought by the most ambitious students. Such courses are easier to fill and to teach, but online learning could serve a much more vital mission. Providing equity of educational opportunity does not just mean that a student in a mountain town can take the same Latin course that is available to the kid in the suburbs. It means that all students should have access to the educational opportunities they need—whether Latin, English as a second language, AP calculus, or consumer math. We plan for Colorado Online Learning to provide not only core and advanced courses but also learning experiences that go beyond the mainstream of schooling, reaching students who are not generally well served by existing online programs and who may not be well served in local physical schools. This learning could include basic skills or literacy, remedial work in core subjects, test preparation (including general education development—GED), applied technology, career exploration, and life skills development.
As this list implies, educational experiences need not be confined to one-semester courses. An online program can offer a variety of learning modules—perhaps a unit or a single lesson, a guided tour, an online tutor, or a job aid. Students could collaborate online, perhaps on a habitat observation project or on the school newspaper. Teachers could meet online to write curricula. In both cases the virtual teams could get feedback from online coaches who work with several teams engaged in independent projects. Such just-in-time, on-demand learning can provide all learners with the information and skills they need when they need them. Making such "coursework" available is one of the ways in which online learning can transform schooling.
Principle 4: Supporting a Broad Range of Learners
Online learning programs frequently target students who are self-motivated, self-disciplined, and college-bound. These "high-end" students are more likely to seize the online opportunities and more likely to complete the courses. Given the wide range of completion rates in online learning courses (less than 50% to 90%, as reported at a recent conference of statewide online program administrators), targeting "successful" students seems sensible.
But if online learning is going to enhance the equity of educational opportunity, it must serve a broader student population—"average" students, students on alternative paths, those who have limited English proficiency or physical or emotional disabilities, and students who have left school altogether. Otherwise, online learning is just another gifted and talented add-on, not a strategy for providing a meaningful extension of the educational experience.
That is quite a challenge. Students who aren't at the "high end" require more sophisticated teaching strategies and a lot more support, both online and on-site.
But it is also a tremendous opportunity. An online program can provide on-site mentors and community experiences (COL includes funds for mentoring, focusing on schools labeled "high need." COL is working on standards for effective mentoring). Courses can emphasize interactivity and product-based learning; they can focus on group projects or independent work. The relative anonymity or the flexibility of time in online environments may promote success for many learners who suffer in physical school settings. At a state conference last spring, for example, a site coordinator for one online program reported that a special education student at her site, who had multiple disabilities, successfully participated in a regular online class, earning a C+. No one in this student's class, not even the online instructor, knew the student had a disability; the online environment itself was all the accommodation the student needed.
A much-favored mantra of the growing online learning establishment is that "online learning isn't for everyone." Maybe not. But if someone said that about classroom learning, we educators would be deeply disturbed. We would think that something was fundamentally wrong with classroom-based instruction that didn't provide a meaningful learning opportunity for all students, and we would promote all kinds of essential reforms. Yet somehow online learning seems to evade this scrutiny, perhaps because it is often regarded as a novelty, a fringe activity, or an enrichment. Why isn't online learning for everyone?
A (Narrow) Window of Opportunity
The National Association of State Boards of Education (2001) observed that the "rapidly moving trends" in online learning present educational policymakers with an immediate and daunting challenge: "In the absence of firm policy guidance, the nation is rushing pell-mell toward an ad hoc system of education that exacerbates existing disparities and cannot assure a high standard of education across new models of instruction" (p. 4). In Colorado, we hope that the principles we have identified contribute to the development of coherent policies that support high-quality learning experiences for any person in any place on any path.
Kalmon, S. & Watson, J. (2002). Findings and recommendations of the Colorado E-learning Task Force. Retrieved December 31, 2002, from http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdetech/download/pdf/et_eltf-findings.pdf
National Association of State Boards of Education. (2001). Any time, any place, any path, any pace: Taking the lead on e-learning policy. Retrieved December 31, 2002, from http://www.nasbe.org/Organization_Information/e_learning.pdf.puzzle gameshidden object gameshidden objects gamesmahjongkids games