Online Education

Q&A: iNACOL's Susan Patrick on Trends in eLearning

At last count, there were more than 1 million enrollments in K-12 online schools in the United States. And according to recent research, the number of students taking courses online will jump to more than 10 million in the next five years. But even with this rapid growth (up from zero enrollments in the mid-1990s), online education is only beginning to address the needs of American students. What's standing in the way of even more widespread adoption? What have we learned so far in these early years? And can any of what we've learned be applied in traditional classrooms?

To address these questions, we spoke with Susan Patrick, president and CEO of iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. iNACOL is an advocacy and research organization that focuses on issues in K-12 online schooling. It represents a broad spectrum of groups centered around education, including schools themselves, state and local education agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, and various technology and content providers. Just this month, iNacol released the first-ever standards for K-12 online education programs, National Standards for Quality Online Programs.

Patrick is also the former director of the United States Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology and is presently broadband ambassador with the Internet Innovation Alliance, a coalition of organizations whose goal is to see broadband made available to every American.

David Nagel: I'd like to start with your assessment of K-12 virtual learning as it now stands. How has it gotten where it is, and is it where it needs to be? And what are some of the trends you see emerging?

Susan Patrick: That's a good question. It's interesting to go back even more than 10 years ago. The first online programs in K-12 education really started in the mid-1990s. Florida Virtual School and Kentucky Virtual School started in 1996. By 2000, there were about 40,000 enrollments in K-12 online learning--the estimate's between 40,000 and 50,000 enrollments nationwide. By 2002, there were 300,000 enrollments in K-12 online learning. By 2005, there were 500,000 enrollments. And the last data that came out last year shows that in 2007 there were more than a million enrollments in K-12 online learning.

Nagel: So it's just exploding.

Patrick: ... For an innovation in K-12 education to grow that rapidly--it's growing at more than 30 percent annually--is remarkable, especially given the constraints from policy and funding models. National surveys show that more than 40 percent of middle and high school students want to take an online course.... We're barely scratching the surface in meeting the demand that students have for taking online courses. And yet, it's still growing very rapidly. This growth is going to continue. This is just the beginning.

Nagel: As far as the actual delivery of education goes, what are some of the trends you're seeing now?

Extra Credit
eLearning: More Demand Than Supply

According to a study released this spring by the the non-profit group Project Tomorrow and education technology developer Blackboard, some 40 percent of all students in grades 6 though 12 have expressed interest in taking an online class. But the study, Learning in the 21st Century: 2009 Trends Update, showed that only a small portion of these--10 percent--were able to do so through programs offered by their own schools.

Further, the study showed that while a third of teachers have taken an online course, only 3 percent have actually taught a course--a figure that has not changed in the last three years. (Thirteen percent expressed an interest in teaching an online course.)

Patrick: The No. 1 reason for a school district to offer an online course is that the course is otherwise unavailable. That's because they might not be able to find a highly qualified teacher. There are major teacher shortages of math and science [teachers] all over the country, [as well as teachers of] foreign languages.... Forty percent of high schools do not offer AP classes. So the fact that you are making available educational opportunities that are otherwise unavailable is pretty significant.

The second thing is it's really helping to meet the individual needs of students. The traditional model of education is to line 30 kids up in a classroom and teach one way--through lecture--to all of those students with one single textbook. Online learning allows a level of customization and personalization that is otherwise really impossible because of time constraints and capital constraints. What can the teacher do with 30 kids in one hour? Well, whether it's a face-to-face environment using blended or [a] hybrid learning [environment] using online courses within the school building or ... outside of the school building, [it] is allowing a level of personalization, of flexibility [that's really] allowing students to go deeper than they ever have before.

Nagel: Related to that, Secretary Duncan for a while had been talking about the extended school day and the extended school week. (I haven't heard much talk about it lately.) Do you think virtual education addresses that by extending the school day in the sense that students in traditional school settings are studying beyond the regular school day and beyond the regular school week?

Patrick: Exactly. Online learning is the solution for extending learning time....

The Silent Epidemic study [from] the Gates Foundation [showed] 88 percent of [dropouts] had passing grades and could have finished, but they're dropping out because they're disenfranchised. They feel like they're not challenged. They wish classes were more rigorous. If we keep doing the same thing and just hold them in school for longer hours, to me that doesn't make any sense.

Nagel: Sure. You hear the argument a lot, and you can argue it's definitely legitimate, that students who aren't thriving in a traditional environment are just going to be spinning their wheels for more time each day.

Patrick: Exactly. Actually when Arne Duncan was still in Chicago, we worked with a school in Chicago called VOISE [Academy High School] (stands for "Virtual Opportunities in a School Environment") in a really challenged neighborhood,... taking students only from the neighborhood [in which the graduation rate was] only 40 percent, taking those students and retraining teachers to use online courses and and all of these collaboration and discussion tools. In a traditional class, it's not cool in their neighborhood to raise their hand and have a lot of discussion, so they're doing these ... silent chats, silent discussions, where they're taking the online coursework and having discussions. The teachers think it's amazing because instead of just having one kid raise their hand, they've got 15 different students posting and sharing ideas and making it relevant to their world, and they're getting so much deeper. After the first year, they've got more than 80 percent of their kids on track for graduating on time and getting accepted to college. (They still want to do better than 80 percent.)

It's just changing the structure of the class.... It's a redesign of the instructional strategy and a redesign of the curriculum away from "stand and deliver" in a single textbook to [focusing on] what ... you really need to do to engage these students and make them active learners who want to be successful in their own lives.

Nagel: It seems like there aren't a whole lot of objections to online learning or distance learning in principle, at least as one component of education. So why do you think it's not more widely adopted, and what do you think are some of the roadblocks to more widespread adoption at this point?

Patrick: ... [T]he biggest barriers are policies and funding. If you're in rural Arkansas and you don't have access to a physics class and you could take one from Florida Virtual School, what are the things that are prohibiting you from doing that?

First of all, who's paying for that? Is the teacher licensed in Arkansas or in Florida? Those policies around teacher licensing are huge [barriers]. Forty-four states today have passed some policies around online learning to varying degrees of support.

But even in the 32 states where there are state-supported virtual schools, if you're in one of those 32 states--Louisiana, Florida, Georgia (not New York, not DC), Maryland, Virginia--and you want to take an online course--the legislature's appropriating money to run that state virtual school, so it's not going to cost your parents any money, it's not going to cost your school district any money--even if you are in one of those states, they have big waiting lists, and once they use up that appropriation, they can't serve any more kids. So in Illinois, they can support 8,000 kids, but not 8,050. So, if you don't make that cut, you're on the waiting list.

So [it's] the policies and funding models. If you saw the funding follow the student enrollments, you would see even more rapid adoption.

Higher ed is great example because you have tuition models, and you get your scholarships to pay whether you're taking an online course or whether you're taking a face-to-face course. Your scholarship pays your tuition. But it's local control in K-12 education. And all of these funding models were created at a time when no one could imagine that you could take a virtual course with a teacher in a different state.

Nagel: Besides those licensure issues, what else do you think needs to change to help it get more rapidly adopted?

Patrick: The two biggest issues are the funding and the licensure.... It's really the adults learning what online learning is. There's still this misconception in K-12 education that there's a computer screen teaching your student, not that you're connected to a teacher that's leading discussion, that's monitoring your homework, that's doing some live, interactive sessions with you on a whiteboard.

Nagel: So it's a perception issue with parents?

Patrick: It's a perception issue with parents, with school counselors. They're huge gatekeepers, and they may or may not understand online learning and how it can help a diverse group of students. A lot of counselors understand intuitively that when a student is advanced and [wants] to take an AP course, they're comfortable with that. But the opportunities for credit recovery for struggling students to have this more personalized dynamic interaction, a lot of people don't understand how helpful it can be.... That's just a slope of perception. And administrators--not understanding online learning--may not allow for those credits to be brought back into their schools.

Nagel: And do you think these perceptions spill over into higher levels of policymaking?

Patrick: Absolutely. Education policy in K-12 is very much controlled by the legislature, and the legislature allows policies for teacher reciprocity with other states, and they certainly have the power to do that--there may be some people that understand that; there may be some people that are just very isolationist, and they don't want to expand that. So it really comes down to [policymakers adopting] a broader perspective of what's possible in the 21st century.

Nagel: Blended learning has been successful in higher education. But it's pretty obvious that even a full-time professor teaching 12 units has a very different work day from a K-12 teacher. How much of that impacts a K-12 teacher's ability to tackle new things versus a higher education instructor's ability?

Patrick: That's a really interesting question because, if you think about it, in universities there are part-time faculty positions, adjunct faculty positions, full-time faculty positions. And in K-12 education, there are only full-time positions within driving distance of you. So what's interesting is for the first time, through online learning, K-12 teachers have opportunities to teach one course part-time or be adjunct faculty members or teach full-time and switch their load up so they teach some classes online and some classes face to face.

I'll give you some examples. Florida Virtual School has over 400 full-time teachers, but they also hire part-time teachers just to teach one or two classes. A lot of those teachers are teachers who have seven or more years of experience and are retired or went out on maternity leave and never came back. There's a study called Going Virtual! that shows that the average teacher going online has more than seven years of experience. A lot of people left the classroom with all of those years of experience because [of] the environment they were in--a lack of leadership support, whatever reason they left for--are applying at virtual schools, getting retrained to teach online, and then love that added flexibility that they have.

So it's a little bit different from comparing with full-time faculty members in universities that go and get trained to teach some of their course load online. The way that it's happening in K-12 more often is that they're going and working for a virtual school, either full-time for the virtual school or part-time for the virtual school. There's some [cases] like the Chicago model where they're taking teachers and retraining them to teach fully blended models, but you see how it's a little bit different [between higher ed and] and the way they're teaching in K-12 ... although there are some examples of them teaching say four classes face to face and one class online.

... Susan Lowes at Columbia University did some research on this and showed that [K-12 teachers are] bringing those technology tools and the new strategies using the Internet back into their face-to-face classes, and it's actually improving the overall teaching and their skill sets and how they can do discussions different ways.

Nagel: You brought up so many points in what you just talked about. One thing you made me think of is teacher turnover. There must be a vastly different turnover rate in online versus traditional schools.

Patrick: Yeah. I know in traditional schools, [based on] the work from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, we lose 30 percent of our new teachers within three years and 50 percent of our new teachers within five years in K-12 education. I wouldn't say that the virtual school teachers' retention rates are any worse than that.

Part of the reason is because of the digital format and because these are new environments. Most programs--every program is unique--but most programs spend a lot of time comparatively on professional development and ongoing professional development. And since these teachers are online, they're able to communicate with each other in an online format too. When you're isolated in a classroom, sometimes it's very difficult [to communicate with colleagues], except for breaks in the staff room. But one of the biggest issues with online teaching is that there is so much interaction with the students--because they can e-mail you and ask questions all the time and it's very one on one--that we worry about burnout. It's very demanding.

Nagel: You brought up another interesting point. A lot of teacher support in virtual environments has to do with online communications, and a lot of that, just on a local policy level, is blocked for K-12 teachers in traditional schools.

Patrick: I would say the bigger issue in traditional schools is they don't have access. Although all of our schools are connected to the Internet (there are computer labs, there may or may not be four or five computers connected to the Internet in the back of the classroom ...), when you're in most settings in K-12 schools, it is very difficult to have access to those collaboration and communication tools.

Nagel: So what do you think traditional schools can learn from virtual schools then?

Patrick: I think the future is going to be all about blended learning. And it's going to be about having more resources available than ever in terms of course materials.....

Teachers are going to still be the leaders and the supporters of the student learning environment. This notion that teachers stop being the "sage on the stage" and go to the "guide ont he side" is totally untrue. The teachers become a more dynamic [centerpiece] of the classroom, but it's really about the differentiation possibilities and the personalization and really being there for a student right where the student is when they need it.

The big idea for the future is that ... you can really start to shift to a more dynamic model. Where you have collaborative teaching, where you can pull in outside resources very cheaply and easily, where you can look at all kinds of digital content and open resources and allow students to build their communications skills and creativity--instead of just being consumers of information, have them be creators of new ideas--you can really change the instructional model to make it more powerful within the school building. And I think there's a business model to make it more cost-effective as well.

Nagel: And you think open materials are the future?

Patrick: I do. I think there's a commercial role in open materials that's very important, that commercial providers are going to build value-added services on top of that,... whether it's online tutoring, whether it's adaptive assessments, really more powerful social networking on top of the content. But the content itself is only one piece of it.

Nagel: But it's not happening now. It's happening a little bit. You see it in pockets. But you really don't see a widespread adoption of a lot of the open technologies that are already out there in K-12.

Patrick: And if you were locked (in 23 states) into textbook adoption policies, it would make it hard to do that. So we have the money tied up.

Nagel: How do you think--to bring the Internet Innovation Alliance into it--the expansion of broadband in this country is going to impact virtual learning?

Patrick: It's critically important. The United States is falling further and further behind globally in broadband adoption. We see through online learning that students are limited by what they can access.... Certainly e-learning or online learning is a big driver for broadband adoption in terms of being an application that really matters and makes a difference both in higher ed and in K-12. But to give you an example, the latest study I saw shows the U.S. is No. 26 internationally on broadband adoption to the home.

[As an example], there's Michigan Virtual School. They have one of the best chemistry teachers I have ever seen. Any student in Michigan could access this online chemistry class. They offer online Mandarin Chinese co-taught by Chinese teachers in Beijing, and they practice with students internationally. But there are kids in the upper peninsula of Michigan that still only have dialup.

The digital divide is getting worse in terms of what students have access to what opportunities. And there is a huge need to really focus on a national broadband policy and enabling [these] kinds of learning opportunities for every student....

Nagel: How do you think ARRA is impacting virtual education?

Patrick: If you're looking at funding projects that will be sustainable after the funding cliffs, [you should be looking at] investing now in the infrastructure for virtual learning. A really good approach to virtual learning would be to be investing in open licensing and developing the training or professional development around how to teach online.

We're seeing a lot of districts and states use online learning to address the four assurances from the stimulus, from offering rigorous, college-ready courses to turning around low-performing schools with new models of remediation and credit recovery. And on teacher effectiveness and teacher distribution, if you've got areas where you have major teacher shortages, online learning ... is sometimes the only way you can dynamically change that teacher distribution.

So we're seeing a lot of focus on the solutions made available through online learning and addressing those assurances in the Stimulus and helping people identify projects for the [Invest in] What Works and Innovation funding and also Race to the Top.

Nagel: What's your outlook on federal ed tech funding through EETT? It got a boost in the Stimulus Package, but it was reduced in the following year's budget. Is your outlook positive?

Patrick: Well, I've seen that funding--since I was over that funding when I was at the Department of Ed--be used extremely well for technology projects that contributed a huge difference. I've also seen that funding be used to buy shopping lists of tech gadgets.

One of the reasons I got into online learning is because it was making such a big difference in expanding access for so many groups of students. Taking a really great teacher and then giving them a bunch of technology tools so that that same group of students can do more is fine. But making fundamental shifts in access and teacher quality and how we design education to me is a lot more interesting. And if that funding could be more targeted toward scalable innovations and less on gadgets, I think it would be a lot more effective.

Twenty-five percent of that funding is directed toward professional development. There are no kinds of criteria for the quality of that professional development, and that, I think, should be a big concern as far as public policy goes. Mexico has been training every single pre-service teacher on how to use digital content and teach online since 2003. There's starting to do that across the board in China. They have online learning in 100 percent of their secondary schools in Singapore. And in the U.S., it is actually very rare to find a pre-service program that teaches teachers how to teach online or use digital content. There might be some classes on how to use a spreadsheet or how to do a PowerPoint; ... a lot of the education technology focus has been very specific to product professional development instead of totally changing strategies. If you train somebody how to fully teach online, then they can use those skills in a classroom or virtually.

Nagel: A lot of that though is kind of cart before the horse. I'm sure you know a lot of the attitudes of teachers. Some of them will overcome any obstacle, and others will throw their hands in the air because they can't get the technology they need to use this stuff, so why are they training for it? How much of that is involved?

Patrick: I think there's a lot of that. And I think even in the places where those education technology funds have been spent, if you were to ask at the school level or district level, do you have 30 percent of your teachers using the software, they would laugh. I mean the numbers usually are at 3 percent or 5 percent.

So if our digital investments are really underutilized, we really need to look at ways that can profoundly change the learning environment and make sure that those investments are sound.

And you're right. The teachers are already overwhelmed. They're doing the best that they can in the time that they have. Teachers don't have enough time. But when you try to add or layer new stuff on top of what they already have to do, it becomes impossible for them. They go and get all the professional development, and they don't have the technology infrastructure there. I mean it's just not realistic to think you can always schedule that lab down the hall.

At higher ed campuses, I think there's a really fundamental difference. The sunken costs of technology in higher ed also support online learning. That's ubiquitous high-speed broadband. Eighty-three percent of college classes use a learning management system, whether they're face to face or otherwise. And that training for the faculty to use that learning management system--even to post their syllabus or assignments or other things like that--[is] really the first step in that direction. Whereas the sunken costs in school districts and states on technology don't always support virtual learning. You have to find a whole new pocket of money. And to me there's a real disconnect there.

Nagel: I'd like to end this by hearing what you think are the major problems that online learning is solving, followed by how students are coming out of these schools in terms of SAT scores, AP test passage, and state test scores.

Patrick: The major problems that it's solving (and I've touched on this before): Teacher shortages are a major problem. It is a solution for teacher shortages, changing the distribution of teachers.

Engagement is a huge problem for students in the current model. Dynamic online courses and curriculum and training teachers in new strategies to improve that engagement and personalize instruction: [online learning] is a huge solution for that.

Credit recovery--that is, kids failing classes and getting behind and not being able to catch up and then dropping out--is a huge problem for our traditional schools. What do we do today when a kid fails Algebra I? We give them the same textbook, sometimes the same teacher in the summertime ... and expect different results. Results are not very good. We're just losing these kids. New models that pinpoint exactly where the students need support and allow them to move at their own pace and get additional instructional support when they need it through online learning is a huge solution. We're seeing quite a turnaround in what's possible. Omaha Public Schools just switched all of their credit recovery and remediation in summer schools into online format. They're ... using MITE open courseware to do that. So those are some solutions to major problems that are happening in our schools.

There are huge opportunities in connecting students globally.... The International Baccalaureate program, which is one of our members, they have started an IB diploma program online, and they have students from 125 different countries participating, collaborating, sharing ideas, communicating, building their second language fluency. Giving kids opportunities that are truly globally connected and academic in nature, I think, is so important in the world that we live in.

The last point on the test scores--this is really interesting--the national average for passing (or getting a 3 or higher) on the AP exam is 60 percent. Florida Virtual School, which teaches a lot of AP courses, has all of the data. There's a study called the Florida TaxWatch Report on the Florida Virtual School [downloadable in PDF form here, approx. 800 KB] that compared all the data both for the AP courses and for the end of course exams in Florida and found that Florida Virtual School, through their online courses, was serving a higher number of minority and underserved students than traditional schools, and those students were performing better on the AP exams than traditional students in traditional schools and better on end of course exams.

[The study found the average AP exam score for FLVS students was 3.05 versus 2.49 for public school students. FCAT reading and math results were also markedly better for FLVS students than for public school students. Complete details and caveats can be found in the report itself.]

So better achievement for ... a population of more underserved students. And that's true across the board.

Every major study that's been done has shown that online learning is "as good as or better" when based on student achievement. And this last report that ... came out of the Department of Ed [early this summer] shows that it's better. And considering that kids wouldn't have access to these classes anyway, even if they were just as good, that would be a huge step in the right direction. But the fact that they're actually academically more engaging and better is a real sign that we can learn things and shift things.