Filling Educational Gaps With Online Learning: An Educationally, Economically Sound Solution

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In many ways, the 1990s were good years for our country. From 1992-2000, the United States saw its longest period of uninterrupted economic growth, largely due to the booming Internet economy. School districts also reaped the benefits of this prosperity in terms of local, state and federal funding for technology. According to the Education Commission of the States (www.ecs.org), average overall spending for schools increased 31% from 1996-2001.

Recently, however, we have seen repeated economic setbacks, including the events of Sept. 11, an unstable stock market, the dot-com crash and the fallout from corporate calamities, such as the Enron collapse. It’s not surprising then to realize the impact these events are having on K-12 schools and districts. School boards and superintendents are now faced with increasingly tight budgets, while coping with ongoing challenges like the growing teacher shortage and increased demands for educational accountability. While President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act increases funding for schools on the federal level, it also adds an additional layer of accountability for meeting student learning needs for states and school districts.

In this country, we also recognize that this is the most important time for us to focus on ensuring that students have access to high-quality educational opportunities. Now, it is more critical than ever that those students have access to courses they need to ensure that they will be successful in college and in life. This sounds like a bit of a catch-22 with the increased demands on K-12 school districts, which are dealing with diminishing dollars. Yet, through innovative budgeting and planning strategies, superintendents and principals everywhere are discovering creative tools for meeting the needs of all students.

Expanding Educational Offerings

Online learning is one such tool, offering a cost-effective way to expand a school’s educational offerings, while addressing the unique needs of individual students for both the short and long term. Planning an online learning program that fits within increasingly tightened school and district budgets, however, begins with a careful evaluation of needs. For example, a high school might have five students who need to take economics, but not have a teacher who is qualified to teach the course. In this instance, contracting with a company that can provide a high-quality online course that meets state learning standards may make the most sense.

However, if 25 students need to take Spanish II to graduate and a school has other foreign language educational needs, then searching for a qualified foreign language teacher is probably the best educational and most sensible decision. That is, if the school can find a teacher. In many parts of the country, the growing teacher shortage has had an impact on schools’ abilities to hire and recruit teachers, particularly in hard-to-staff subject areas, such as math, science and foreign languages. So, while many educators would agree that hiring a full-time classroom teacher is the best educational decision, in the short term this may not always be a possibility for schools. Online learning fills that void in the educational program, giving students the courses they need to apply for college or, in some instances, graduate on time.

Online learning is ideal to fill short-term gaps in a school’s educational program without making a long-term investment. For example, one year a school might have those five students who need the economics course; then, the next year, there might be four students who need AP Physics. Carefully planning and evaluating a school’s educational needs on an ongoing basis allows principals and superintendents to continually meet changing needs. In addition, the financial investment is made on an as-needed basis rather than a significant investment to fill a short-term need.

Technology, Teacher Support

Online learning will not be a cost-effective solution, however, if a school enrolls students in courses and d'esn’t have the technology to support them. Before purchasing online courses or resources, educators must review the required technology, as well as be sure that their schools have the hardware, software and connections to support it. Once a school has determined that online learning is the most educationally sound and financially expedient solution, educators need to be creative in their funding approach. More than 32 states already sponsor e-learning initiatives and, in many instances, funding for online courses and resources is available through these programs.

Parent-school partnerships are also becoming increasingly popular. When students successfully complete courses, such as AP courses, college tuition costs can actually be lowered. And courses that meet students’ unique needs usually have the positive result of ensuring that those students stay engaged in school and interested in continuing their education. So, parents who want their children to have access to educational opportunities that are beyond the scope of the school’s current program, may have a vested interest in sharing the cost of an additional course with the school.

Recognizing that high-quality education is an important value in the corporate community, creative superintendents are also exploring private-public partnerships to support enhanced learning opportunities. A local technology company might be willing to fund scholarships for students to take online courses that are beyond the scope of a school’s basic education program.

Critical to an online learning program’s success, especially in a tight economy, is communicating the thinking behind the strategy to teachers, students, parents and the community. Teacher support is paramount to the success of online learning, because they are needed to mentor and guide online students. It is important that teachers understand that their schools are using online learning to increase their effectiveness by only asking them to teach subjects for which they are best qualified — not to replace them. By demonstrating that online learning is extending and enhancing educational opportunities, and why it is the most educationally sound and cost-effective strategy, school administrators can leverage school and community support for future efforts.

As we all know, both educational needs and fiscal resources will continue to change, and the ways that schools use online learning should change with them. A successful online learning program needs to be evaluated and adjusted on an ongoing basis. Whether economic times are tight or flush, school districts will always have unique educational needs and gaps in their educational programs that need to be filled. Online learning is an answer to these challenges for all times.

Contact Information
Apex Learning Inc.
Bellevue, WA
(800) 453-1454
www.apexlearning.com

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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