Should States Mandate Online Learning?

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In Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: A review of state level policy and practice, Watkins and Lewis (2006) reported, "As of September 2006, 38 states have either state-led online learning programs, significant policies regulating online education, or both." (p. 6). In 2006, "Michigan passed a law creating an online learning experience requirement for high school graduation" (p. 7). Michigan Merit Curriculum Guidelines (2006) indicate "Students must take an online course or learning experience or have the online learning experience incorporated into each course of the required curriculum beginning with the class of 2011" (p. 8). I have a concern about any state or education institution mandating online learning for any education level. 

According to those Guidelines (2006), an online learning experience will require students "to complete assignments, meet deadlines, learn appropriate online behavior, and effectively collaborate with others in an instructional setting" (p. 1), which sounds good. In response, Michigan Virtual High School (MVHS), the leader of Michigan’s online education endeavors, created an online career development course that will be available to all students in the state. MVHS has a number of online courses and formats to help students meet the requirement.

Recommending and requiring are two different things, however. Even the National Education Technology Plan (U.S. Department of Education, 2004) just includes a recommendation that states, districts and schools "provide every student access to e-learning." So, I am wondering about the decision making in Michigan, despite reasons given on why that legislation was passed. These included that online courses have the added advantage of promoting 21st century skills valued in professional careers (getting online, using email and discussion boards for communication and collaboration, locating information using the Internet) and global citizenship. While I agree with that statement and understand the intent of the law, how does the nature of learners themselves and the learning process impact implementation?

The whole point of using technology in instruction, either via virtual courses or classrooms or Web-enhancements to face-to-face classroom instruction, is to strengthen education and provide additional learning opportunities to meet the needs of all learners. However, not all learners are successful in the online environment.  Even some of my master’s and doctoral students have voiced concern that online learning was not for them, despite the convenience of accessing their courses from wherever and whenever they choose.  When Katrina Meyer, who was teaching at the University of North Dakota in 2003, commented on learner differences in "The Web's Impact on Student Learning" (http://thejournal.com/articles/16350), she stated that a student with a visual learning style or an independent behavioral type might do better in a Web environment than a student who is aural, dependent, and more passive. Online learning will work as well as other forms of education for good students but may not work as well for students who struggle because of a lack of motivation or self-confidence. Should we expect otherwise for high school learners?

In fact, universities have developed tools for students to determine whether they are ready to learn online. For example, SORT, the Student Online Readiness Tool of the University System of Georgia (http://www.alt.usg.edu/sort/), addresses areas that research has found relate to student success in the online environment. Students taking online courses need regular computer and Internet access; basic technology skills; good study skills and habits, including a willingness to communicate regularly with instructors and classmates; high motivation to succeed; good writing skills; and strong time management skills. I have found that students must also be willing to spend more time to complete requirements of online courses, as they are not easier than face to face courses.

Michigan Merit Guidelines (2006) also call for schools to make assistive technology devices and software available to students to help meet the requirement. Although MVHS is working to ensure courses comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, I suspect that eventually the state will need to develop guidelines to exempt some high school students from the requirement, particularly those with certain physical and/or learning disabilities. I would urge research on the impact of the law on student learning.   

I’m going out on a limb in my commentary and wonder what other educators think. I believe technology and Internet resources should be integrated into the learning experience. I agree with Dr. Meyer (2003) that we are still looking for answers to questions that ensure that the Web is used effectively for student learning. If, as she indicated, higher education is still looking for "the optimal match possible between student, learning and technology," how can we mandate online courses/experiences as part of high school graduation requirements? 

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About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.

About the Author

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net. She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.

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