Introductory information of general interest is presented below. For further information of greater depth targeted at specific audiences, follow the School Community link above or the individual audience links after each section below.
- What is online education?
- What is an online course like?
- What are some implications of online instruction for learners?
- How can I determine the quality of online courses from a source?
- How are special needs students accommodated in an online environment?
- What does research show about online and distance education classes?
What is Online Education?
Online Education uses the Internet to conduct education at a distance, usually in the form of courses or instructional units. It uses teaching strategies based on the same instructional design principles as those employed in classrooms, except...
- The teacher and student are in different physical locations and perhaps on different time schedules.
- Student-teacher interaction is primarily through e-mail, web sites and web chat rooms, and usually involves special software for presentation, discussion, testing, assignments, resources, records, etc...
- A student takes greater responsibility for maintaining focus, communication and timely progress.
Online education is offered through many public school districts, private schools, charter schools and, increasingly, through special statewide Internet academies. Most of these educational opportunities are secondary school courses, some of which are offered free to constituents of a district and some requiring a tuition fee. There are also supplementary educational offerings from many organizations, such as virtual field trips or class visits with an expert such as a NASA engineer, an author or a political leader. These activities are usually scheduled by a teacher to coincide with classroom instructional plans.
What is an online course like?
Teacher and student roles are much the same as in a classroom, but conducted differently. A teacher of an online course provides information, learning resources, evaluation, guidance and structure through computers and communications systems. In many cases, online instruction uses course management software for that structure. Students conduct the required activities, respond to teachers in a timely fashion, and interact electronically with other students and the teacher for discussion, assistance and collaboration. They will likely consult outside experts and locate academic resources online, and may participate in structured online field trips to museums or other locations.
They submit assignments through email or the course management system. Sometimes an online course requires students to complete assignments for a given unit of study within a limited period of time, perhaps a week, and schools require completion of course requirements within a definite period such as a semester. Some online schools require occasional or periodic face-to-face visits between student and teacher, and some online science courses may require face-to-face lab activities.
A high school semester course offered face-to-face (in school) requires from 60 to 90 hours of seat time depending on the state you live in, and involves attending 18 weeks, five days a week and 40-60 minutes a day, not counting homework. In an online course, a similar level of effort is expected but without the in-school location requirement. Successful students in online courses frequently report spending more time on work for the course than in comparable face-to-face classes.
What are some implications of online instruction for learners?
Online education schools or programs provide:
- Opportunities for individuals who are unable to be in a classroom for a variety of reasons.
- Flexible access to particular classes that fit the student's schedule, circumstances, interests or needs, and opportunities not otherwise available.
- Opportunities for participation, enhancement, enrichment, remediation and credit retrieval not otherwise available or possible.
Students have more time to reflect on their academic goals and activities; can set the pace of their own learning; engage in more 1:1 dialogue with their teachers and receive more timely feedback. They will likely also have opportunities that transcend geographical and time boundaries. Teachers can more easily individualize instruction to meet unique student needs and learning styles.
Because students work in isolation without the physical presence of the teacher or other students, they cannot rely on the familiar verbal and visual cues of face-to-face communication for conveying or understanding messages. As a result, to be successful, students must:
- Develop self-discipline and independence in time management.
- Have the intrinsic motivation to succeed in their coursework.
- Confront technical problems on their own.
- Develop sufficient technical skills to fully engage in the course.
- Overcome academic and technical anxiety.
Online course activities are dependent on the development of skills that contribute to lifelong independent learning including following instructions, writing, reading strategies, research, and communications.
Online learning requires the attention to detail and direction characteristic of accomplished problem-solvers, and the practice of clear, direct communication and independent approaches to challenges which develop social maturity.
In a given geographic location, available courses:
- might not suit the age level or subject needs of the student, or desired courses might be available only within a school district or limited area;
- might not be accredited or offered by an accredited online school;
- might not meet professionally accepted standards of design or presentation, and it might be difficult to determine that information.
How can I determine the quality of courses from a source?
Judging the quality of online courses involves gathering information from a course provider about a number of factors or characteristics.
Good online courses are designed and taught by teachers certified in the fields they teach, who also have special training in the use of course management software and other electronic tools.
Time requirements, including both expectations for student time investment and course completion time, should be clear and in line with time requirements for normal classrooms.
Courses should be offered and supervised by accredited private or public schools or school districts operating according to official state curriculum and legal standards.
Good online courses offer:
- Reading material that is interesting and engaging over a range of ability levels.
- A variety of ways for students to interact with and learn the course content.
- A variety of open channels and modes for self-expression and communication with other students and the teacher.
- Guidelines and criteria for conducting fruitful Internet research.
- Opportunities for obtaining special assistance from teachers, technical staff or counselors.
How are special needs students accommodated in an online environment?
Special needs students with physical disabilities participate in online courses with the support of readily-available adaptive and assistive devices and capabilities such as text-to-speech software and magnification that are built into computers.
Online instruction lends itself to individualization and customization even more than face-to-face teaching. Special needs students benefit from easily made accommodations like written course notes and more time to complete assignments.
Special needs students with the academic ability, technical readiness and motivation can have access to the benefits of online courses afforded to all students.
What does research show about online and distance education classes?
The growth in online education opportunities and the number of K12 students served by them is fueling an expansion of the body of research on K12 online education. However, much of what is currently known about the advantages and disadvantages of online teaching and learning is based on the large body of research from higher education and business. The following generalizations were drawn from the findings in a multitude of studies that collectively suggest implications for K-12 students and educators.
- There are indications that student achievement in online courses is at least equal to student achievement in classrooms. The level of interaction between online instructor and student has a significant impact on student satisfaction and learning.
- When students enroll in online courses as a matter of choice, they frequently do so because of scheduling conflicts or availability issues. When they enroll as a matter of necessity, they often do so for credit retrieval, or because of prolonged absence for various reasons or failure to thrive in classroom situations.
- Online students drop out because they lack time, management oversight, motivation, support, or because their individual learning style is not congruent with online delivery strategy. Dropout rates for online courses and programs may be 10 to 20 percent higher than for in-classroom courses and programs.
- Online learning is not always the most effective or appropriate mode of instructional delivery for certain content or students. There are times and contexts when in-classroom instructional delivery predominates and the end-goal of online instructional delivery is to enhance or widen the educational experience.
- The primary problems and issues related to K-12 online education are often the problems and issues related to access to technology or installation.