The unintended benefits of online courses

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Jul 28, 2015

As we’ve long pointed out, the growth of online and blending learning in our K–12 education system signals a promising path to personalizing instruction for each students’ needs and strengths. Online learning can provide students with anytime, anywhere access to education that would have been implausible decades ago. A La Carte courses—in which students’ teachers of record are online—are one of the fasted-growing blended-learning models in K–12 education and offer many students access to and flexibility within courses otherwise out of reach.

But the market for online 2015 Course Access White Papercourses is also proving to be a lever by which school districts can reinvent themselves by marking a promising departure from districts’ traditional business operations, educator roles, and curriculum offerings. A new paper out last week from the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Education Counsel, Leading in an Era of Change: How Districts and Schools can make the most of Course Access, illustrates how ten districts themselves are changing with the rise of Course Access programs and homegrown district-run online course offerings.

Here are my three big takeaways from the report and release event hosted by the authors last week:

1. Districts are becoming more nimble operators

As districts become hubs and purveyors of online courses, they are beginning to change how they do business. For example, the report describes the successful efforts of Quakertown Community School District in Pennsylvania, which has built its own online-learning program as an in-house alternative to Pennsylvania’s cyber charters. The district now uses its own face-to-face teachers to develop and deliver online courses. Lisa Andrejko, former superintendent of Quakertown, estimates that in the first four years of its operation, Infinity Cyber Academy helped the district retain over $2.5 million that would have left the district had students moved to or continued with cyber charter schools.

Another example highlighted in the report hails from the much smaller Guthrie Common School District in Texas, where a tiny rural school district has morphed into a statewide provider of hard-to-staff courses. “Access to personalized learning has always been available to the affluent … access to that is now available to any family, any community,” former Guthrie superintendent, Nelson Coulter, said. The district, which started off hiring a Spanish teacher to teach online courses across a number of similarly situated remote school districts in Texas, is now one of the largest providers in the Texas Virtual School Network, which allows students across the state to enroll in online courses. The small district, in other words, has at once responded to its own shortages in course offerings, while also extending its reach across the entire state. Like Quakertown, this marks a shift in the core business and delivery model of the school district: Guthrie can now bring in revenue above and beyond its per-pupil allocation from the state to in fund additional opportunities for its own students.

2. Districts are rethinking teachers’ roles and career pathways

Districts embracing online courses are also beginning to chart new career paths for teachers. For example, in Texas’ Plano Independent School District there is a full time staff member tasked with overseeing the district’s online course offerings. As the report’s authors describe:

Having a full-time staff has contributed to an increase in completion rates by having dedicated personnel focused on keeping students on track and the partner schools and teachers involved. Beyond the district office, many new career opportunities have opened for teachers. Starting in 2014–2015, the eSchool has two full time teachers completely dedicated to online learning. It also has approximately 115 part time teachers, with 100 current Plano ISD classroom teachers who teach online courses for an additional stipend and about 15 “retired” (e.g., stay-at-home parents who wanted to teach part-time).

Guthrie Common School District, described above, likewise boasts a different approach to staffing. Despite being the third least populated county in America, the district now employs a diverse range of educators to staff the courses that they offer; this makes teaching—not just learning—an anytime, anywhere endeavor. Former Superintendent Coulter credits the high success rate of Guthrie’s virtual students with the types of teachers the district is able to attract. “Guthrie is clearly a small school [district]. Large schools have a less attractive record of losing kids through the cracks…. The people we hire to teach have a small school mentality … that mad-dog-after-a-rabbit mentality,” he said.

3. Districts are expanding high school, as we know it

As school districts explore online courses, they are also starting to expand what they offer as part of the “traditional” high school curriculum to meet students’ changing and diverse demands, as well as the demands of the labor market. For example, in Pasco County School District in Florida, in addition to its own student population, the district also serves between 200 and 300 students from other Florida districts that take online classes that only Pasco offers, including German and American Sign Language. Similarly, Guthrie’s virtual school now has plans to expand into offering online courses in the health sciences in order to meet new market demands across the state.

What do all of these trends have in common? Besides illustrating the potential of online courses to expand access, the stories highlighted in this report signal the outgrowth of a new value network to support online courses. Online courses, in other words, are not just seeding new learning experiences for the students who enroll in them. Indeed, they are seeding whole new organizational structures as districts reorganize to deliver and evaluate these new and expanded offerings.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.

  • Nice article. Really Online learning holds the future of higher education. Students will see that they can really reach their goals.The demand for online learning is also escalating due to many state institutions being unable to accommodate all the students that want to take classes in campus.

    Thanks