One of the biggest questions I am often asked is, “Can online learning benefit minority students or those who struggle most to learn in school?”

It’s asked because one of the easy examples of non-consumption where online learning has taken root is for Advanced Placement (AP) and other advanced courses. The assumption that drives the question is that where we need to improve outcomes isn’t for those at the top; it’s for those who are dropping out, not learning how to read, and so on.

An article in eSchool News titled “Panelists: Online learning can help minority students” begins to answer the question quite well.

Sharnell Jackson, the chief eLearning officer for the Chicago Public Schools, and Themy Sparangis, the chief technology officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District, along with Ray Rose, director of programs at MentorNet, were the panelists in a Webinar that the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) hosted on the topic. Their conclusion? Online learning can be a big benefit to underrepresented student populations.

And it’s a benefit in precisely the places we’d predict: areas of non-consumption, including for dropout recovery, for kids in juvenile detention centers, where school courses don’t have enough enrollment, and for schools that don’t have enough educators to teach a specific subject. Online courses help in the latter two cases to ensure equitable access for all students, Sparangis said.

As Jackson said, “Online can be an alternative to school if either you physically cannot attend school or if a traditional classroom setting does not fit your specific needs. With online learning, a student can finish their high school degree, make up credits, and enrich traditional curriculum.”

Interestingly enough, out of all the high schools in Illinois that use online learning, a predominantly Hispanic high school has the highest online learning pass rate.

The panelists went on to explain how online learning is often more rigorous than regular classroom learning and, in their experience, how students often have the same if not better learning outcomes, as measured by state tests. Classes can be more individualized, have increased assessment and monitoring, have interactive options, and provide a host of online resources for students.

In our view, this is just the beginning of a truly student-centric learning experience for our children. The disruptive innovation of online learning is planting itself in these footholds for students who otherwise would have no other course option and are not well served, and as it increasingly does so, it will also gradually improve. As it does so, it will benefit students who have struggled traditionally in schools far more than anyone else.

– Michael B. Horn


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.