Abstract: Virtual or online learning is revolutionizing American education. It has the potential to dramatically expand the educational opportunities of American students, largely overcoming the geographic and demographic restrictions. Virtual learning also has the potential to improve the quality of instruction, while increasing productivity and lowering costs, ultimately reducing the burden on taxpayers. Local, state, and federal policymakers should reform education policies and funding to facilitate online learning, particularly by allowing funding to follow the students to their learning institutions of choice.
Historically, American students' learning opportunities have been limited and shaped by factors beyond their control. Geography has been an important factor. Does the child live near a good school? If not, do her parents have the financial means to place her in a quality learning environment? Access to quality instruction has been another factor. Was the child placed in a class with the best teacher? Are the teacher's lessons--designed to instruct a classroom of 16 or more students--tailored to her level, learning style, and interests?
The development and proliferation of online learning and virtual learning options is beginning to break down these barriers. In the future, students will be able to receive customized instruction from teachers anywhere in the United States or even in the world. The best teachers will use technology to reach many more students. Virtual and blended-learning programs will enable mass customization in education, allowing students to learn at their own pace in ways that are tailored to their learning styles and interests.
The online learning revolution is already underway in the United States. As many as 1 million children (roughly 2 percent of the K-12 student population) are participating in some form of online learning. Today, 27 states offer statewide virtual schools that allow students to take a class online, and 24 states and the District of Columbia offer students the opportunity to attend a virtual school full-time. Growing numbers of school districts are offering virtual learning options that include supplemental instruction or blended-learning programs, which use online learning in combination with face-to-face instruction. Enrollment in online learning programs is expected to grow over the next decade. One analysis has predicted that half of high school classes will be online within a decade.
Students appear to be benefiting from online learning programs. While evidence about the effectiveness of K-12 online learning programs is limited, there is reason to believe that students can learn effectively online. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education published a meta-analysis of evidence-based studies of K-12 and postsecondary online learning programs. The study reported that "students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction." In addition, online learning has the potential to improve productivity and lower the cost of education, reducing the burden on taxpayers.
The available empirical evidence on the effectiveness of online learning programs suggests that federal and state policymakers should enact policies to expand online learning opportunities. State policymakers could enact policies that expand, replace, or supplement the learning opportunities available in traditional schools. Federal policymakers could reform policies to allow states to develop innovative online learning programs and expand students' learning options. Moreover, specific federal agencies--including the Department of Defense, State Department, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)--could use online learning to better accomplish their educational missions.
What Is Online or Virtual Learning?
Online learning is quite different from the traditional concept of education, which involves a school building, a classroom with rows of desks, and a teacher standing next to a chalkboard. What does it mean to say that a child is being taught through an online or virtual education program? How would a child interact with a teacher online, and how would such an online program be funded or governed?
Existing online or virtual learning programs differ from traditional education in a number of significant ways:
The Potential Benefits of Online Learning
Given the many ways that the information revolution and the Internet have already changed and improved the lives of Americans, the potential educational benefits of online learning are very significant. A number of scholars and analysts have examined the potential benefits of online learning. Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb predicted that virtual education will fundamentally transform K-12 public education in the United States for the better in their 2009 book Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education. Clayton Christianson, a professor of business at Harvard University, and his coauthors Curtis Johnson and Michael Horn discussed how online learning will revolutionize learning in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Education experts Elizabeth Kanna, Lisa Gillis, and Christina Culver examined the potential benefits of virtual learning from a parent's perspective in Virtual Schooling: A Guide to Optimizing Your Child's Education.
Therefore, it is reasonable to expect virtual education to improve learning opportunities for American students in a number of ways:
The Empirical Evidence
While there is good reason to anticipate these theoretical or potential benefits, some evidence is already clear. Initial empirical evidence suggests that students can benefit from online learning options. A 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Education presented the findings of a meta-analysis of the evidence-based studies of online-learning programs, including 44 studies involving postsecondary students and seven studies involving K-12 students. The meta-analysis reported that, "students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction."
The report included other findings that may help policymakers understand how online learning affects students' learning. For example, the report stated that instruction combining online learning with face-to-face elements produced better results than purely online instruction. Moreover, the researchers reported that students who participated in online learning and who spent more time on task benefited the most.
Many of these studies involved older students, and the researchers suggest caution when interpreting their findings, but the preliminary evidence suggests that online learning can provide a quality educational experience. This should give policymakers the confidence to expand the opportunities for online learning.
Virtual Learning in the United States
A recent estimate found that more than 1 million K-12 students participated in online courses in 2007-2008, an increase of 47 percent over 2005- 2006. This amounts to approximately 2 percent of the K-12 student population. The Evergreen Education Group reported in November 2009 that 27 states have state virtual schools and 24 states have full-time, statewide online schools. In all, 45 states and the District of Columbia have a state virtual school or online initiative, full-time online schools, or both. Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont are the only states without a statewide virtual school or full-time online schools.
In addition to these statewide or full-time virtual schools, many school districts offer blended or full-time online learning courses. The 2009 Sloan Consortium survey found that 75 percent of districts had one or more students participating in some form of online learning. Moreover, 66 percent of school districts with students participating in online learning expected participation to increase.
Parents and policymakers should note that the availability of online learning programs varies widely from state to state. For example, a student in Florida has more opportunities to learn online than a student in Maryland. The Florida Virtual School is the largest statewide, supplemental virtual learning program in the country with an enrollment of 154,000 in 2008-2009, compared to only 710 students in the Maryland Virtual School program. These different participation levels are primarily the result of differences in access and funding. The Florida Virtual School is a statewide supplemental program offered to all Florida students and supported by state government funding. In Maryland, students must obtain permission from their school districts before participating in the Maryland Virtual Program.
In addition to these publicly supported virtual learning programs, parents and students also have access to independent online learning programs offered by providers that range from companies, such as K12, and universities, such as Johns Hopkins University. The for-profit education industry accounts for approximately 10 percent of the education sector. As virtual learning becomes more popular, parents should expect to have increased opportunity to purchase online learning services from a diverse range of independent providers.
How to Expand Learning Options Through Online Learning
State and federal policymakers could enact a number of educational reforms that would improve learning options for students.
What State and Local Policymakers Should Do. State and local policymakers are best positioned to reform K-12 education and expand online learning options. If policymakers wish to provide online learning options to students in their state, they will need to transform the current system of education finance and governance, which funds and regulates a system that was largely designed in the 19th and 20th centuries. In general, policymakers need to reform education policies to create a venue for online learning (such as a state virtual school or cyber charter schools), incorporate online learning into the traditional school system, and perhaps most importantly reform funding systems to facilitate greater parental choice, including access to online learning programs.
To expand learning opportunities for students in their communities by reforming education policies that strengthen online education, state and local policymakers should:
What Federal Policymakers Should Do. The federal government's role in public education has traditionally been limited. However, since the 1960s, the federal government has become increasingly involved in funding and regulating public education. As of the 2004-2005 school year, the federal government provided 9.2 percent of the funding for public elementary and secondary schools in the United States.
To improve learning opportunities for students, Congress and the Administration should:
Reform federal K-12 education programs outside the Department of Education to use online learning. Beyond the Department of Education, dozens of federal departments and agencies fund K-12 education programs. Federal policymakers should consider using online or virtual learning to improve effectiveness and efficiency of these programs. For example, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) currently educates approximately 85,000 children of military personnel and is developing plans to create an online virtual high school for the 2010-2011 school year. A virtual school for the children of military personnel would likely expand their educational opportunities and minimize disruptions caused by transferring to new schools when their parents are transferred to new assignments.
Themission of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) is to "to provide quality education opportunities from early childhood through life in accordance with a tribe's needs for cultural and economic well-being, in keeping with the wide diversity of Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages as distinct cultural and governmental entities." The BIE serves 42,000 Indian students in 184 schools on 64 reservations and in 23 states. Many of these schools are in remote locations and face some of the same challenges of rural schools, including small teacher pools and limited course offerings. A virtual school for BIE students could expand learning opportunities for Native American students and strengthen their ties with students from other communities. Such a virtual school could be voluntary and structured in a culturally sensitive manner consistent with BIE's mission.
The State Department assists the families of personnel serving overseas by providing an allowance to purchase education for their children. According to the State Department, access to quality schooling for their children is an important consideration for Foreign Service officers and others when choosing overseas posts. Like the DODEA, the State Department could create a K-12 virtual school for its personnel or it could expand its "home study" reimbursement program by creating partnerships with virtual schools in the United States.
Through the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP), the federal government currently provides funding to states to assist with the education of children in foster care. Since instability is a common problem for foster children, virtual school programs could be particularly beneficial. Congress could reform the CFCIP to allow foster children to use the federally funded education and job training vouchers for virtual learning programs.
Online learning has the potential to revolutionize American education. Today, as many as 1 million children are participating in some form of online learning. Twenty-seven states offer statewide virtual schools that allow students to take classes online, and 24 states and the District of Columbia offer students the opportunity to attend a full-time virtual school. School districts are increasingly offering virtual learning options, such as supplemental instruction or blended-learning programs that combine online learning with face-to-face instruction. Enrollment in online learning programs is expected to grow over the next decade. One analysis estimates that half of high school classes will be online within a decade.
Students appear to be benefiting from online learning programs. A meta-analysis of empirical evidence on online learning programs found that students learn as well or better online as in a traditional school setting. Other potential benefits included expanded access to talented teachers, customized learning, more flexibility for families, and improved school productivity.
Local, state, and federal policymakers would be wise to reform education policies to expand students' learning options by increasing their access to online learning.
Dan Lips is Senior Policy Analyst in Education in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation.
John Watson, Butch Gemin, Jennifer Ryan, and Matthew Weeks, Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of State-Level Policy and Practice, Evergreen Education Group, November 2009, at http://www.kpk12.com/downloads/KeepingPace09-fullreport.pdf (November 16, 2009).
Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn, "How Do We Transform Our Schools?" Education Next, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Summer 2008), at http://educationnext.org/how-do-we-transform-our-schools (November 16, 2009).
Barbara Means, Yukie Toyama, Robert Murphy, Marianne Bakia, and Karla Jones, "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practice in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies," U.S. Department of Education, May 2009, at http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf (November 16, 2009).
Ibid., p. xiv.
For example, Florida Tax Watch analyzed the fiscal impact of the Florida Virtual School, a model statewide virtual school, and reported that an enrolled student received $1,048 less in government funding than a student attending a traditional public school. This savings estimate does not include the costs for school facilities and maintenance if the student had enrolled in public school. Florida Tax Watch, Center for Educational Performance and Accountability, "Final Report: A Comprehensive Assessment of Florida Virtual School," November 5, 2007, p. 77, at http://www.floridataxwatch.org
/resources/pdf/110507FinalReportFLVS.pdf (November 23, 2009).
Anthony G. Piccianno and Jeff Seaman, "K-12 Online Learning: A 2008 Follow-Up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators," Sloan Consortium, Hunter College, and Babson Survey Research Group, January 2009, at http://www.sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/pdf/k-12_online
_learning_2008.pdf (December 28, 2009).
Ibid., p. 12.
Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).
Clayton M. Christianson, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008).
Elizabeth Kanna and Lisa Gillis, Virtual Schooling: A Guide to Optimizing Your Child's Education (New York: Palgrave MacMillen, 2009).
Moe and Chubb, Liberating Learning, p. 7.
Ibid., p. 80.
Means et al., "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practice in Online Learning."
Ibid., p. xiv.
Picciano and Seamon, "K-12 Online Learning."
Watson et al., Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning.
For more information on K12 and the Center for Talented Youth, see K12, "Enroll or Buy," Web site, at http://www.k12.com/enroll-or-buy (December 28, 2009), and Johns Hopkins University, Center for Talented Youth, Web site, at http://cty.jhu.edu/ctyonline (December 28, 2009).
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: 2008, Table 173, at http://www.nces.ed.gov
/programs/digest/d08/tables/dt08_173.asp (November 23, 2009).
Zach Miners, "Military to Debut Virtual School," U.S. News & World Report, November 5, 2009, at http://www.usnews.com/education/articles/2009
/11/05/military-to-debut-virtual-school.html (December 28, 2009).
U.S. Department of the Interior, "The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)," updated October 19, 2009, at http://www.bia.gov/WhatWeDo/Service
Overview/IndianEducation/index.htm (November 23, 2009).
Dan Lips, "Foster Care Children Need Better Educational Opportunities," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2039, June 5, 2007, at http://www.heritage.org/research/education/bg2039.cfm.
Watson et al., Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning.
Christensen and Horn, "How Do We Transform Our Schools?"