Blended Learning

Online Schools Growing Yet Reasons Students Choose Them Haven't Changed

Although the number of students who take online or blended courses is elusive, the reasons they go the virtual route for their studies tend to fall into a few specific categories: academic, personal or health-related or because of other "life interests and circumstances." A new report issued by the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning suggested that these reasons haven't changed in the two decades since online options first surfaced. What has changed is the pace of growth among students choosing to attend blended and online schools and the number of such programs introduced or adopted by "traditional" districts.

According to "Why Do Students Choose Blended and Online Schools?" best estimates are that between 1 million to 2 million students –– about 2 to 4 percent of the total –– attend virtual classes. Online schools within states that allow them to draw students from any district teach about 350,000 students. Others attend schools within a single district or "sub-state region," blended charter schools and alternative education programs.

The report focused on a subset of students taking online classes –– those whose families have actively chosen the online route rather than students who are taking online courses for credit recovery or because they have no other option while also attending a regular school.

The reasons cited by students within the report reflect three primary motivations:

  • The students are behind in school and need to catch up. Frequently, they lack credits, and the school they attend works exclusively with that type of student.
  • They're doing well in school, but feel they're not challenged enough, and the online program offers courses not available in their traditional school. As the report noted, "Even when an individual teacher recognizes the issue and provides enrichment opportunities to the student, these options are often limited and inconsistent between classes."
  • The student doesn't consider the traditional school a good "fit" for any number of reasons, often tied to the school's social environment. For instance, the report stated, "these students may be interested in academics and feel that the school culture is largely focused on sports and social events."

Oftentimes, all three conditions are present for students. A student may be especially interested in a specific topic, for example, the report suggested, maxing out the number of courses that can be taken in that area and then lose interest in other aspects of his or her education.

"Determining the role of blended and online programs in the wider school landscape begins with an understanding of what makes them an attractive option to our students," said Executive Director Amy Valentine, in a prepared statement. "If we are able to identify why a student's needs are not being met by traditional schools, we can design personalized learning environments for those who have been historically underserved by school. With all of the potential for personalization in education, we rarely hear from students regarding their experience. This report goes directly to the source to provide insight into the reasons they choose to move into blended and online programs."

Although the report doesn't share specific data regarding growth of the use of online programs, as evidence it profiled several virtual school programs that have grown. Also, the authors asserted that while the "earliest blended and online schools were charter schools," currently, an "increasing number" are set up by or work with traditional districts.

The report is openly available on the FBOL website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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