Online learning is growing by the gigabyteby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Children and parents around the state this spring are picking elementary and high schools for next fall. But more and more students won't be going to a school at all. These students will take classes at home, by computer. Online learning has been growing by the gigabyte in Minnesota and around the country, and that's only likely to increase this year.
Royalton, Minn. — Alexa Olson is one of the thousands of kids in Minnesota going to school via the Internet.
"I wake up in the morning. I sign onto my classes, check to make sure that I did everything that was needed," Olson said. "I usually do a good five hours a day, like a normal school day, to keep up in my classes."
Olson reads textbooks, and hands in papers and gets grades, too, like any other high school junior. But that's about as traditional as it gets.
"You can sign on whenever you want. Sometimes I sign on in the evening, when I'm feeling lazy," Olson said. "The teachers mostly call when they want to talk to you, otherwise it's mostly by e-mail."
"There's chances when you can have live chat, but I really don't go into that," Olson continued. "But they have podcasts, where your teacher will like, record a lecture for you to listen to. But otherwise, it's pretty much on your own time."
There are 4,500 more kids like Olson across Minnesota.
It's a tiny fraction of the 840,000 kids in public schools, but it's growing steadily. If these students were all in the same town, they'd make one of the biggest school districts in the state.
And there's no turning back for online learning. An industry trade group, the North American Council For Online Learning, has just set nationwide teaching benchmarks that will standardize the field.
Online enrollment in Minnesota shot up 50 percent last year. And the nation's biggest online high school, Insight Schools, will start enrolling students through the Brooklyn Center district this fall.
"It's starting to get the attention of all sorts of folks, because it's starting to reach that critical mass. In fact, it has reached that critical mass," says John Watson, with Evergreen Associates, a Colorado consulting group. He's author of the leading survey of online education nationwide.
"I think broadband is part of it, because, as you get more and more broadband penetration, it gets easier to learn online," Watson said.
"But I think part of it, too, is that there is this realization that there's enough of a history here that these schools work," Watson continued. "We've got students who are satisfied. We've got parents who are satisfied, and that's what tends to spread the word more than anything else."
And there is a lot to like. In southeast Minnesota, for instance, two online programs are helping keep the doors open at the local schools.
The Houston-based Minnesota Virtual Academy offers online classes to hundreds of kids all over the state. It adds to the regular enrollment of about 450 kids in the town's regular schools.
Online classes are also extremely flexible. Kids can go to school online full time or just for some part of the regular school day. They can get just electives their schools don't offer, or a whole curriculum.
Teachers can tailor their classes for special education students or gifted kids.
Online education can also reach kids that traditional schools haven't, according to assistant Minnesota Education Commissioner Morgan Brown.
"If you've got dropouts, where they have jobs or other commitments but they want to come back and work towards a degree, they can arrange those time slots," said Brown. "The whole advantage of online learning is that there's a flexibility, in terms of the time frame."
It was health problems that got Alexa Olson online. Her mom, Jody Scott Olson, said a hard-to-pinpoint immune disorder was making Alexa subject to what seemed like every bug in Little Falls High School.
"And every time she was sick for two weeks, the school was processing her as a dropout, and she was falling increasingly behind," said Jody Olson. "At some point we just decided to look at online high school as an option, so she wasn't missing so much of the curriculum."
Olson says her daughter has since gone from heading for a remedial math class to getting A's and B's in her classwork.
But the benefits of online education come at a cost, too. Although online education can be more flexible, experts say it isn't really any cheaper, per student, than traditional classroom education.
Concerns are also rising over accountability. Online programs are regulated by the Minnesota Department of Education, and students have to take the same tests and meet the same state requirements as traditional students. But it's hard to tell what's going on on the Internet.
"As we go forward, we need to make sure there is enough oversight so we can maintain the quality," said Tom Dooher, head of Education Minnesota, the state's teachers' union.
The group has already taken the state to court over online education once. Although some of his members teach online already, Dooher says Minnesota kids and parents would regret outsourcing education to the Internet.
"Distance learning can work if it's done properly. But you lose that interaction that kids get in a school setting, and it simply doesn't fit every students learning style," said Dooher. "You need to have some self-motivation, and some other qualities that make sure that the student gets everything they can out of the course."
But Jody Scott Olson says kids like her daughter are already living important parts of their lives online. It would be hard to make school different.
"Alexa's managed to stay in touch with her friends via MySpace and other online things. You know, her primary access to her friends has been via the Internet, anyways," said Jody Olson.
Alexa Olson hopes to graduate, online, next spring.
- Morning Edition, 04/23/2008, 7:55 a.m.