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The Future of Online High Schools

by Andrew Zucker - October 13, 2008

In the past decade hundreds of online high schools have been created. These institutions provide many benefits, but appropriate cautions are necessary. The biggest problem facing online schools is “irrational exuberance.”

The pace of change can be remarkable—even in education!—and online high schools provide an excellent example. By September 2008, 44 states had either full-time programs, in which students take all of their courses online, or, more often, supplemental online programs, in which students take only a few courses online. No one has an exact figure, but in 2008 high school students will likely take 500,000 to 1 million semester-credits online. Considering that number was near zero a decade ago, the growth is stunning.

Online schools are best understood as one of multiple ways in which public schools are rapidly incorporating technology. As such, online schools starkly contradict the idea that public schools are immoveable institutions that cannot or will not incorporate powerful computer-based tools. Apart from online schools, Maine’s laptop program for all middle school students, Pennsylvania’s Classrooms for the Future high school initiative, and other similar programs provide hundreds of thousands of students with powerful, networked laptop computers to use for learning every day. The federal E-Rate program has helped connect every classroom in the nation to the Internet. Technology is helping transform schools into more modern and effective institutions, but teachers and students—not technology—remain at the center.

The most important, widely cited benefit of the hundreds of existing online schools is that they provide access to courses students otherwise would not be able to take. For example, certain courses, ranging from poetry to a particular Advanced Placement class, may not be available to students at school. Or students may not have time to fit another course into regular schedules, or might be homebound. Online courses address these needs, and many others.

Although the number of courses taken online has grown at double-digit rates for over a decade, they still comprise only about one or two percent of all high school enrollments. A majority of online courses are taken by high school students attending regular brick-and-mortar high schools who attend most courses face-to-face and one or two online. In addition, but in smaller numbers, the full-time enrollment in online “cyber charter schools” is growing. Students in those schools—or in a few other online schools—may take all their courses online at home.  

The high school students taking online courses change the “grammar” of schooling. It is no longer necessary to meet in a physical location called school. It is no longer necessary that students in a class come from only one brick-and-mortar school; indeed, it is no longer necessary to enroll in class with students from only one city or town. In a minority of online high schools it is not necessary to adhere to the usual school calendar because some of the schools support individual pacing for students.  

One thing has not changed: almost all online high school courses are taught by a human teacher. Computers and the Internet provide the communication medium, as well as suites of tools (to conduct online discussions, view documents, and so on), but computers, in the form of software, are very rarely the teachers. Teachers’ roles vary greatly among the online schools, however, ranging from pedagogically active, including promoting a high degree of student interaction with others, to primarily reviewing students’ work, as in a correspondence course. To become active and effective online instructors, teachers need quality professional development and time.

Advocates of making schools more flexible, modern institutions that can better meet students’ needs—which is to say, majorities of policymakers and the public—are supporters of online schools. My colleagues and I who studied the Massachusetts-based Virtual High School have written enthusiastically about online schools for a decade, based on available data. So have many others. Online schooling is filling real needs. But there are also some important cautions.

Attention to quality control is essential. The studies that have been done (and more are needed) show that most online courses are of high quality and that participants (students, teachers, parents, principals) are satisfied. Nonetheless, dropout rates for online courses are higher than for face-to-face courses, especially if one begins measuring enrollments at the beginning of the course rather than after a drop-and-add period. To be successful in online courses demands persistence and discipline, although it is not necessary to be an honors student and, in fact, there are online credit-recovery courses and programs for students not doing well in traditional schools.

Policies and procedures are being revised in most states to accommodate online opportunities not available in the past. A few online schools have been of low quality or have improperly inflated their enrollments to increase income from tax dollars. Some have shut down. Half a dozen states have investigated cyber charter schools and several have changed rules and regulations to assure more adequate state oversight.  

Perhaps the biggest problem facing online high schools is “irrational exuberance,” the phrase used during the high-tech stock bubble of the late 1990s. Whenever there is phenomenal growth—whether in stock or housing prices, mortgage borrowing, or online enrollments—policymakers should not become so enthusiastic that they fail to ask important questions. We know where that leads, and it is not a good place.

There are proposals in Washington calling for spending $500 million in federal funds to build new virtual schools and support the development of online course offerings for students. The financial crisis may make this initiative impossible, but even if federal funds were available we should ask: why is the current growth rate for online schools of over 20% annually insufficient? Maintaining quality and oversight are at least as important as growing the number of online schools and courses at a faster rate.

A Harvard Business School professor recently wrote that by the year 2019 about half of all high school courses will be online. Not only do many knowledgeable people in the business believe that estimate is incredible, but the professor does not explain basic details. Will a large fraction of high school students sit home working at their computers? Do we no longer believe that face-to-face interactions with peers, teachers, and counselors are essential for most adolescents? Are we willing to move the money for half of all high school courses to institutions that do not provide libraries, physical education, discipline, meals, social encounters with students from multiple backgrounds, and the other things that traditional schools provide?

Blended learning, in which face-to-face courses are supplemented with online work, is also growing rapidly and for many teachers and students is likely to provide an excellent learning environment. In 2006 Michigan became the first state to require online learning experiences for high school students. The state made blended learning one option for meeting the requirements.

In 2002 the Washington, DC based Center on Education Policy reviewed the nascent field of online education and published Principles of Public Education in an Online World: What Policymakers Should Be Asking about Virtual Schools. They presciently noted that online schools supported with public money ought to be held accountable, as traditional schools must be, and as some states discovered later. The Center also advised that online schools should serve as a supplement to public schools, not a replacement. Yet already there are perhaps 50,000 students who once might have been called “home schooled” who are being educated online and at home using public tax dollars. Most are in elementary schools but some are in high schools. Whatever one’s opinions of public support for full-time education at home, it is clear that a policy debate should be taking place. Whether taxpayers should support online education for students who never or hardly ever set foot in a school building is too vital an issue to support or reject mainly on the basis of exuberance. Although largely an issue for states, whose policies vary greatly, national attention is important, too.  

Many people assume that online courses are cheaper than face-to-face courses. That would be a surprise to legislators in Florida, home of the largest online high school. By statute the state provides the Florida Virtual School 11% more per online FTE than brick-and-mortar schools. A publication of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) suggests that the cost of online courses is about the same as traditional classes, not lower.

Given the great variety of local, state, and national programs, the topic of online high schools is complex.  (The Keeping Pace series published online by NACOL each year is one good place to learn more about online high schools.) But it is clear that online enrollments will continue to grow at a rapid rate—and so will blended learning, laptop programs, the use of interactive whiteboards, and other applications of technology in schools (as I discuss in my book, Transforming Schools with Technology: How Smart Use of Digital Tools Helps Achieve Six Key Education Goals). Online high schools are based on the power and flexibility of computers and the Internet, but their future will depend most of all not on technological progress or even economics, but on society’s vision of the education our children need and the proper role of government support for education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 13, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15405, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 6:08:36 AM

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About the Author
  • Andrew Zucker
    The Concord Consortium
    E-mail Author
    ANDREW ZUCKER is a Senior Research Scientist at The Concord Consortium and author of Transforming Schools with Technology: How Smart Use of Digital Tools Helps Achieve Six Key Education Goals, published by Harvard Education Press.
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