George Lucas Educational Foundation

Idaho Digital Learning Academy

Grades 9-12 | Statewide, ID

The Brave New Breakthrough of Online Learning

Discover how K-12 students and teachers from across the country are using virtual technology to create enhancements to their learning experiences and new success in their lives.
David Markus
Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)
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Tessa Beaver was way behind in credits when she came to Centerpoint Alternative High School in Caldwell, Idaho, but graduated early by supplementing her regular class schedule with online courses. Just a few miles away, online learning helps students in r

More than 150 years ago, the idea took flight that lessons could be taught and people could learn by correspondence through the mail. Many years later, some smart college professors and software engineers realized that computers were a far superior tool for distance learning than papers stuffed in an envelope. When email and online, real-time chat for consumers came along in the 1970s, the brave new path to the virtual classroom was plain to see.

Today, 45 of 50 states plus the District of Columbia have a state virtual school or online learning initiative, full-time online schools, or both. Fifty-seven percent of public secondary schools now provide access to online learning for students. And the impact on the learning process -- while still a focus of research for K-12 students -- is increasingly being seen as positive.

A U.S. Department of Education analysis of more than 40 studies, including five focused on K-12 pupils, found that "students who took all or part of their classes online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction." Another study, by the National Survey of Student Engagement, reported that the online-learning experience yielded deeper use of "higher-order thinking, integrative learning, and reflective learning."

A Solution to the Budget Crisis

There is more to online learning, however, than just upticks in student achievement. It is also paying dividends in two key areas that challenge school administrators everywhere:

  • It's proving to be a viable, low-cost strategy that could substantially help overcome the huge, recession-driven deficits in education budgets across the country.
  • With more than a third of all K-12 educators leaving the profession due to layoffs or retirement over the next few years, online learning is emerging as the best direct solution for providing many urban and rural children with the instruction they need in already teacher-thin subjects such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and world languages.

Ben Merrill, principal of southwestern Idaho's small, rural Notus Junior/Senior High School and superintendent for the Notus School District, says, "Out here, when I have an opening for a teacher in advanced science or math, I may get two to three applicants, all right out of college -- no one with a master's degree. So I hire a highly qualified online teacher, and my kids get the same opportunity for a quality education as kids in Eagle, an affluent suburb outside of Boise."

How Online Learning Can Work

Here's how it works: After teachers are certified by any one of the many online schools out there, they are assigned classes of students with whom they engage directly online, teaching lessons and coordinating assignments using interactive software applications, chat, and email. What the student sees is something like this: They view lessons on the screen that the teacher often conducts in real time by showing slides or videos, and the teacher talks directly to the students through the computer. Pupils respond by voice or text chat. A lot of the lesson materials -- articles, graphs, videos, practice questions, and so on -- are available online to the students at any time, and students are encouraged to email their teacher directly or call on the phone for a one-on-one discussion if they need a hand.

The Students Who Benefit the Most

The students' situations vary widely. Most, but not all, are middle school age or older. Some live in remote areas. Some have disabilities that make it hard to succeed in a traditional classroom, where it can be difficult to provide a highly personalized learning environment. Other students and their families simply prefer the flexibility of the online format.

Increasingly, these kids are participating in a hybrid model that mixes face-to-face classroom learning with online classes taught by teachers who specialize in subjects not offered at many traditional schools -- all within the same school day. Subjects range from physics to personal finance to digital photography as well as AP courses and languages such as Mandarin, Spanish, and Arabic. In Georgia, where there are about 400 high schools and just 89 high school physics teachers, it's making a big difference.

The Battle Ahead

But there are challenges aplenty. Despite the trends, many state legislators who control the purse strings are not sold on the idea that online learning is the equal of the brick-and-mortar experience. Some superintendents and school boards also remain skeptical. Budgets can prohibit funding for people and services not located in the towns, districts, and states in question. On the college-admissions front, some admissions officers still do not view credits gained online as being exacting enough for consideration in the college-application process.

Though online learning is attracting many accomplished teachers from traditional schools, it is not a slam dunk for everyone. Educating online requires rigorous personal-organization skills and commitment to the one-to-one personalization that makes the strategy successful. Guiding students through collaborative projects or providing certain kinds of social and emotional support can be tricky and requires considerable focus on innovative solutions. And meaningful collaboration between teachers is still an unmet goal for most online educators. Not surprisingly, since many online educators work part-time for each school, their employment tends to come without benefits.

Success Stories

But make no mistake, the arc of change is pointing emphatically toward online learning. In this Schools That Work package, you will see how it is dramatically improving prospects for kids who were destined to join the drop-out ranks. You will also meet Idaho teacher Holly Mortimer, who spends her day instructing on the computer, nurturing unique learning relationships with her students while being able to stay at home and spend time with her family.

You'll learn how one of Mortimer's employers, the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, ensures quality by providing supervision and feedback to its teachers, who are scattered across the state. You'll find handy resources from the nearby graduate-level Education Technology program at Boise State University's College of Education, which is turning out talented online educators from around the country.

And you will discover how K-12 students and teachers from Nevada to Massachusetts to Florida are using virtual technology to create enhancements to their learning experiences and new success in their lives.

Here comes the future. Take a look.


What do you think of Schools that Work?
Tweet your answer to @edutopia or post your comment below.

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Randy Calhoun's picture

Sounds like education "on the cheap" to me. Requires way too much self-discipline for most kids. I can't see how this experience can replace face-to-face interaction between a good teacher and a manageable number of kids.

Call me "Skeptical"

Elaine Duddy's picture

I don't think it is a replacement for a teacher. I think it's a tool for enrichment or supplimental learning. When a kid is bored because the teacher doesn't have time to go into a subject in more detail or if a student is stuck on a concept. I feel it could be used in conjunction with traditional schools.

Mark Egli's picture

What it "sounds like" and what research is showing may be two different things. Research is showing increased engagement and equal or increased student achievement. Multimedia and collaborative web 2.0 tools are going to move this way beyond the traditional "sit and get" education. Almost every corporation in the world has gone to online training for their employees; it must be working.

Lisa J. Cooley's picture
Lisa J. Cooley
School Board member, parent of 2 public school students.

How does online learning blend with Edutopia's other goal, project-based learning? Can project-based learning happen through online education, or is online learning to be regarded as a solitary affair, with PBL happening in other parts of the school day?

Also: one question not really answered above, though hinted at: how, exactly, does it save money?

Mark Egli's picture

Web 2.0 tools now provide ample opportunity for collaboration, shared communications, and shared documents to such a degree that it is actually easier than trying to physically get together with folks who live in close proximity. I can talk face-to-face using Skype with my colleagues 50 miles away or 2000 miles away. Having to drive 40 miles to meetings when I could easily participate in a webinar is for me a source of irritation. Project-based learning is taking place right now between classrooms scattered across the US and the globe. It's not a question of whether it can be done anymore.

Larry Rossdale's picture

Good to see that people are starting to embrace distance learning. Not everyone has the time or money to attend a brick and mortar university. I had a great experience with distance learning. I got my distance learning degree at Liberty University and couldn't be happier. Check out their website at

DAU THUY HA's picture

Greetings from Hanoi from a Boise State Alumna. Our company OMT consists of several Boise State alumni and we are developing online management programs for Vietnamese small and medium enterprise, and do some OER work as well. I take liberty to quote another person's comment on what we are doing in Vietnam:

As Boise State Alumni, we feel proud that Boise State's EdTech has become the largest university-based program in the United States that trains online teachers. We hope this will come some day to our part of the world!

M_Matthews's picture

I personally am a big fan of online learning, as I'm getting a degree in IT through this online university, WGU. WGU is solid and I couldn't be happier with how its set up for an individual like myself. Has anyone else heard of any other good distance learning IT programs?

Doug taylor's picture

Technology will not replace the teacher, but, teachers who do not use technology will be replaced by those who do. Digitalizing textbooks and making them easy to edit/share and print can make a significant impact on online learning. Teachers not only can customize the content but also bring cost of textbooks down for students. Minnesota Math teachers have saved $175,000 by creating an online textbook. Instead of dismissing online learning altogether, we should look at the tangible benefits of it. Learn how

Steve Peterson's picture
Steve Peterson
3rd grade teacher from Decorah, IA

The story line I often hear from online education proponents is that it beats "sit and get" in a "bricks and mortar" institution.

Let's just say that anything can beat "sit and get." And online education can be just as "sit and get" as any other kind of education.

Online education is a tool that should be used wisely. You don't use a Sawzall to un-stick a drawer. (Er...well...okay, I did that ONCE, but I don't recommend it. Wrong tool. It was new and I wanted to use it for everything...) Instead, educators should be asking what's that tool good for? What isn't it good for?

I'd venture to say that if the answers to these questions are mostly about saving $$ and not about learning it's not the correct use of the on line tool. Our time and energy would be better spent fighting for the right resources rather than insisting that the education is quality when the purpose isn't quality, but $$.

I think the key to good teaching is knowing your students well, knowing your material well, and knowing how to do excellent on-the-spot observation and questioning. Sometimes that is possible on line. Sometimes not.

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