The number of students at the K-12 level who are taking an online course has increased dramatically over the past few years. The most recent figures from the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education, put the number at over 1 million in 2007, up over 47% from two years earlier. About 200,000 students attend online schools full time.

A story in this week’s New York Times takes a closer look at this trend, suggesting that the explosion in online learning may be motivated more by opportunities to save districts money and less by the chance to provide quality education.

One of the most rapidly expanding areas for online learning, the story points out, is in credit recovery courses – a chance for those who failed a class to still get credit. These classes are used by high schools, particularly in high-poverty districts, to help increase graduation rates and avoid federal sanctions.

Trip Gabriel’s article opens with an anecdote from one such class, where a student never had to actually “wade through a tattered copy” of a Jack London story, but copy-and-pasted paragraphs and a bio from Wikipedia and sent it off as part of the homework assignment. It encapsulates some of the worst fears of online education: there’ll just be more cheating and less learning than in brick-and-mortar classroom settings.

That anecdote sets the tone for much of the article, which states that online learning opens opportunities for some students to take classes they wouldn’t otherwise be able to, then immediately detracts its value.

“But critics say online education is really driven by a desire to spend less on teachers and buildings, especially as state and local budget crises force deep cuts to education. They note that there is no sound research showing that online courses at the K-12 level are comparable to face-to-face learning.”

But there are some important questions unanswered — and worse, they’re not even asked. If students are not excelling in face-to-face settings, can online learning provide them with a better — or different, or another — opportunity? And can online learning open new doors that just aren’t possible in a classroom, with access to different types of creative and collaborative possibilities with students and teachers worldwide? What about reports that show the value of blended learning?

The article also suggests that arguments for and against online education break down into what looks like questions of labor rather than questions of learning.

“Like other education debates, this one divides along ideological lines. K-12 online learning is championed by conservative-leaning policy groups that favor broadening school choice, including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which has called on states to provide all students with ‘Internet access devices’ and remove bans on for-profit virtual schools. Teachers’ unions and others say much of the push for online courses, like vouchers and charter schools, is intended to channel taxpayers’ money into the private sector.”

The political backdrop with budget issues and teacher layoffs does make this a complicated issue, but it isn’t one that falls so neatly into two ideological camps. The question of the quality of online learning took center-stage in the Room for Debate section, where five educators responded about the potential and the quality of online learning at the K-12 level. Those responses show that it isn’t an either-or matter here. Online isn’t de facto better or worse. It isn’t a matter of either public schools or private companies leading the charge.

This isn’t to say, of course, we shouldn’t ask tough questions about the quality of education. We need to do that for online and offline instruction. As Gary Stager writes in his Room for Debate response:

“Online environments focused on collaboration and action, rather than reading and test-taking, can be more social, creative, substantial and personally meaningful than traditional classes. Learning is no longer bound by artificial schedules, random teacher assignments or age segregation. Students feel more connected than in “school” where talking is the No. 1 infraction and teacher access is severely curtailed. When work is public, peers learn from it and support reciprocal growth. Everyone is a teacher and learner all of the time. The quality of work benefits from the extra time, collaboration and expertise.

The computer’s real power lies in how it allows kids to learn and do new things in new ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Done well, online learning could supplement classroom instruction, offer experiences otherwise impossible, support 24/7 learning and break down barriers of geography, wealth or culture.

Yes, in some cases, online learning may turn into copying from Wikipedia. But the same tactic — plagiarism — has been used by cheaters long before Wikipedia ever entered the scene.

Online learning does not just offer courses to K-12 students; it opens up learning options — and that’s the promise of technology.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Audrey. Another poorly researched article from the NYT. My response on edReformer:

    • Anonymous

      You nailed it in your piece, Tom. It’s disappointing to read incomplete pieces from such highly influencial media sources.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this article. Online learning potentially opens up many opportunities for rural and students who attend schools with limited options. I have used some online learning programs in my 5th grade classroom for math. What I have found is that the online forum allows students to move at their own pace. I had one student finish classes through algebra in one year. If she had to go the same rate as every other student in the classroom, she would not have had that opportunity.

    I now offer classes online to teachers through Luria Learning. I know how powerful online learning can be and want more teachers to have the opportunity to learn online. I think once teachers have taken online courses, they will be more likely to use these resources in their own classrooms.

    Sacha from

  • Mark DelVecchio

    Thank you for opening the debate and thanks for the NYT for making it public. I first heard about the Memphis program while in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Our IT coordinator brought the article to me to show me about the possibilities of online learning. I immediately jumped to the conclusion that Memphis was hurting for money and needed to pass students to improve its graduation rates. I still think the evidence points in that direction. Anecdotally, I have worked with students that have discovered that it is easier to earn credits with an online class than a brick and motor class with a classroom and a teacher. I believe the focus has to be learning and not credit. As you state online courses should increase opportunities for learning. They should not be a replacement for poor school districts to pass their students to meet a criteria nor should they be the the road more traveled to avoid rigor and struggle. They can and will be an avenue to expand offerings, a method of going deeper and way to support classroom learning.

    • Anonymous

      Mark, no question that districts are trying to save money and often looking at online learning primarily as cost saving strategy. Similarly, interest in boosting grad rates (and saving money) has resulted in a rush to online leraning for credit recovery. It’s great that more students have a pathway to a high school diploma, but we should seek to prepare them for employment and further learning.

  • I strongly support online education as at least it provides education at affordable price.

  • Pam Smith

    As a Homebound teacher, online learning is a competent component to this particular learning environment.  I used the EdOptions online course this past year for a Homebound student that is a quadriplegic, only having use of his two thumbs.  This online course was set up for him and he thrived with it.  The exception for this experience was that this particular Homebound student is brilliant and very, very responsible as a 10th grader.  His whole world is centered around doing well in school.  This is very rare!  I’m not sure how well this online experience would work for the average student. 

  • Chrispaquette1

    Online learning, for the most part, is a bad idea. It saves schools money, it’s convenient, it gives other options–none of which are legitimate reasons for changing the way young people should be taught. Read “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster; Technopoly by Neil Postman; Distracted by Maggie Jackson, or The Feed by M.T. Anderson. Online learning breeds isolation and the erosion of attention. I’m no ludite or alarmist. I agree with Harold Bloom who argues that we are entering an era called the Dark Age of the Screens.  

  • Tom Vander Ark

    Chris, online learning creates access to great resources and teachers for all students.  When combined with the best of online learning, it provides a rich, engaging, social, and customized learning pathway.  Early blended models suggest it works better for all kids.  It’s the only possible way to connect great teachers with every US student and to sustain quality in the ‘new normal’ fiscal period.  

  • The plagiarism issue should not be difficult to solve. There are some inexpensive tools that can scan a written piece and check if any parts appear elsewhere on the Internet. Copyscape Premium works well for this and costs about 5 cents per scan.

  • SDavidson

    I believe the key to online learning is not a teacher that is connected via technology – but one that is ONSITE where the students are required to have seat time. This, IMHO, is the only way for true success in learning.

  • Erin

    Now we see that distance learning isn’t just about budget cuts, it’s more about educational equity…

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