Online Learning in K-12 Classes Growing

This year, fifth, sixth, and seventh graders in Los Altos School District will see changes in their math classes as a new blended learning program is implemented. Powered in part by Khan Academy, a non-profit which offers electronic resources and online lessons for free, the new math classes will allow students to work at their own pace in the virtual environment, while still providing them access to an instructor for assistance should they need help. This trend in primary and secondary education is gaining popularity across the country. For example, in Florida, high school students are required to complete at least one online class in order to graduate. In fact, four million K-12 students took at least one online course in 2010, compared to just 45,000 in 2000. According to estimates from the Washington Post, 50% of all primary and secondary students will be enrolled in some type of online course by 2019.

This push is fueled by efforts from both for-profit and non-profit organizations dedicated to changing the way we deliver education. Supporters of online courses stress the importance of developing a student centered learning environment in which we focus on outcomes rather than inputs. In the virtual classroom, learning experiences can be paced and customized according to a student’s needs and preferences. With this model, the curriculum can adapt to the individual student, rather than students being forced to adapt to a uniform statewide curriculum. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are even turning to cutting-edge developments in cognitive science and neuroscience to create state-of-the-art cognitive tutoring software. Understanding an individual’s unique response to a learning experience is key to keeping students motivated and successful.

Still despite the research efforts going into such programs, it is ultimately up to policymakers to create incentives for these innovations to be implemented in public education. It will not be an easy battle considering how much of the current system is based on measuring inputs rather than the outcomes of students. For example, funding is granted based on how long students sit in the classroom rather than what they learn. Blended learning programs could change this, allowing the curriculum to adapt to an individual student’s learning needs, allowing advanced students to work ahead and providing remedial courses outside of the classroom for students who are struggling. All this could improve the overall outcomes of students, while cutting costs at the same time.

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