Why Isn’t Everybody Learning Online?

Pretty good free online K-12 learning options exist in most states, so why aren’t more students learning online?  There are more than 2 million students learning online and that’s growing by more than 30% annually, but there are five significant barriers to more rapid adoption:

  1. Babysitting: Don’t underestimate the custodial aspect of school—it’s nice to have a place to send the kids every day.  Homeschooling continues to grow aided by online learning but will never exceed 10% because most folks don’t want their kids around all day every day or just can’t afford to stay home.
  2. Money & Jobs: At the request of employee groups, the Louisiana state board recently rejected three high quality virtual charter applications.  Districts don’t want to lose enrollment revenue and unions don’t want to lose jobs.
  3. Tradition: Layers of policies stand in the way of learning online starting with seat time requirements—butts in seats for 180 hours with a locally certificated teacher plowing through an adopted textbook.
  4. Incentives: There are weak incentives to help kids learn more, faster and cheaper.  If students graduate early, districts lose money.  If taxpayers will pay for schools why not do what we’ve always done?
  5. Content: Weak incentives extend to content developers.  The first generation of online learning is basically textbooks online.  Developing engaging and personalized curriculum including games, simulations, and virtual environments is expensive.  It’s much more lucrative to build content for the consumer market.

The rapid growth rate indicates that there are several factors fueling the growth of online learning.  Here’s a few:

  1. Choice: Many of the early movers in virtual education served homeschoolers; then it became a public school choice for all or part of the student day.
  2. Accelerated options: Interest in AP and college level courses continues to grow; increased STEM push will drive online learning especially in rural areas.
  3. Credit recovery: Personalized and accelerated online options beat the heck out of repeating a class.
  4. Digital natives: kids have always had the Internet and do everything else online.
  5. Cost: the big driver going forward will be cost and the ability to incorporate online learning into traditional schools to improve learning, stretch staffing, and leverage facilities.

For great resources about online learning see iNACOL.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

John Danner

Not to be too obvious, but the other two big reasons that online learning isn't getting large-scale adoption:
1 - Measurement - What measures these systems that leads a school to believe that kids are learning? How much are they learning? How does it correlate with what my school is tasked with teaching students? Aligning the outcomes for online systems with what schools are responsible for and creating online assessments (outside the curricula) to measure this is the first step towards making online strategic.
2 - Once you start measuring, you realize that old-style linear curricula don't cause a lot of student learning. Once you watch kids on these curricula, you realize why, the "zone of learning" is entered and exited pretty quickly while the "zone of boredom" (kid is doing something too easy but curricula doesn't adapt) and "zone of frustration" (kid is doing something to hard but curricula doesn't adapt) are sticky. i.e. once a kid gets out of the right place in the curricula, they stop learning. So adaptive systems that are smart about using kids clicks to figure out where to move them in the system are 10x more important than well-thought out pedagogies in terms of driving student learning.


Tom Vander Ark

visited a very cool learning game org in London yesterday that provides teacher analytics on achievement and persistence--it's smart analysis of keystroke data through an adaptive learning library that will yield profound insights.

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