More students than ever before are taking online courses, giving new options to both parents and students. Online learning reaches nearly 5 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade. While the exact figures are difficult to pin down, it is clear that the number of students involved in online learning experiences has grown dramatically over the past 15 years. State virtual schools or online initiatives, full-time online schools, or both now exist in the vast majority of states and Washington, DC. In five states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, and Virginia) students are required to take (and pass) at least one online or partly digital class to graduate from high school. One of the rationales for this requirement is to prepare students for their future learning. That is, after graduation it is expected that they will be required to continually update their skills or move to new career areas altogether because of job elimination. One of the dominant means of learning will be through technology and not face-to-face instruction.
There are three main reasons why schools offer online learning courses: so students can complete core academic credits, so they can take elective courses that may not be offered in their school (often because of small size), or so students can take a class a second time if they did not pass it on their first try. This last, and most popular, option is known as credit recovery. Of the 88 percent of school districts who offer credit recovery courses, the vast majority of districts do so through online courses.
Proponents of online learning offer the following as some of the benefits of this type of learning: First, students can learn at their own pace and take additional time when they are especially interested in a topical area or are struggling to learn something. Second, specialized subjects (e.g., computer science, Chinese, advanced math courses) can be taught in isolated or smaller school districts. Without online options, students wouldn’t have access to these learning opportunities. Third, lessons can be taken throughout the year and are not subject to lengthy holidays, snow-days, or other breaks.
In spite of the rapid growth and the clear potential of learning via online formats, there are several critical, overarching questions that educators, parents, and policy makers must answer: “For whom does online learning work, under what circumstances, and what kinds of supports are required to ensure that all students can learn online?”
Some recent research by the Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities underscores that there are several challenges that struggling students are expected to overcome if they are to be successful in completing online lessons and courses. For example, students are expected to possess a sophisticated array of reading skills including: (1) Solving problems and answering questions (how the problem is framed and the question understood is central to comprehension); (2) Locating information (being able to search for and locate relevant information is a “gatekeeping” skill for online learning success); (3) Critically evaluating information (the information that students encounter is very diverse…do they possess the necessary skills to evaluate the value of different pieces of information); (4) Synthesizing information (being able to organize and synthesize information from multiple sources is a core requirement); and (5) Communicating via the internet (being able to seek information individually and with others and to communicate what they’ve learned to others).
Most online courses assume that students know how to read, how to learn, and how to communicate with a sufficient degree of fluency and competence. This assumption is not grounded in the reality of the skill profile of a sizeable percentage of students in today’s schools. For example, among students without learning disabilities, 27 percent of 4th graders and 18 percent of 8th graders read below the Basic Level on the NAEP; whereas, among students withlearning disabilities, 85 percent of 4th graders and 71 percent of 8thgraders read below the Basic Level on the NAEP. These performance figures are even worse for students in many large, urban and small, rural districts with large percentages of poor students. Hence, the accessibility of most online courses is largely restricted when we consider the learning needs of students who have a history of school underachievement. The commercial developers of the majority of online courses have often not carefully considered the needs of these students.
The world of digital learning and online instruction has often been referred to as the “Wild West.” That is, there has been rapid growth in the absence of standards and policy direction. However, standards and guidance documents are beginning to emerge and are increasingly being considered by developers of online offerings. In the meantime, it is wise for teachers, parents, and students to carefully consider both the potential benefits and possible pitfalls in online learning options.