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Logging in to School: How Online Programs Keep Students in Class

By:  Darren Dahl Jan 17, 2013
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Provost Academy students at work

Provost Academy students at work


In the past few years, the U.S. has seen a surge in the number of “virtual schools” where students in cities such as Chicago, New York City and Atlanta as well as more rural areas of the country, attend classes and take exams all while sitting in front of their home computer.

“The key advantage of online learning is that it gives kids the opportunity to learn at their own pace and focus on their own needs,” says Heather Staker, senior research fellow at Innosight Institute, a non-partisan think tank. “It allows for personalization, which is a departure from the traditional standardized one-size-fits-all approach we’ve been using for more than a century.”

Decades in the Making

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The move online was first paved by higher education institutions such as John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, Calif., and Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., which began offering an online accredited Master of Business program some 25 years ago. “The level of acceptance for online learning has skyrocketed since then,” says Dr. John Ebersole, president of Excelsior and the former chair of the American Council of the Education Commission on Lifelong Learning. “We are moving toward this being the norm for adult degree completion and graduate study.” 

That helps explain why nearly 40 percent of college and university leaders who responded to a recent survey say they would be launching or expanding online education programs of their own. An estimated 6.77 million college students will take at least one online class this year.

Creating Personalized Educational Opportunities

While higher education may have adapted more quickly to the opportunities of teaching online, more and more elementary and high school programs have been learning to embrace online learning as well. In their book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way The World Learns, authors Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson predict that by 2019, half of all high school classes will be delivered online. 

Unsurprisingly, a high-tech approach to education has drawn its share of critics, especially those who worry about a school age population that already spends too much time inside or on their computers. Staker notes, it is true, “the majority of students still need something that only a brick-and-mortar setting can provide such as social experiences, school lunches and contact with advisors and mentors,” she says, but most kids actually benefit from a mix of online and brick-and-mortar classroom experiences – something called “blended learning.” 

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An example of this school-of-the-future model is Provost Academy Georgia, a new statewide virtual high school in Georgia that launched in August 2012. The school was created in partnership with the Magic Johnson Foundation and EdisonLearning, a company that helped pioneer the charter school movement in the United States. Provost Academy offers Georgia high school students the opportunity to take online courses as well as access mentoring and tutoring services in multiple locations around the state for free. If students lack access to a computer, the school will lend them one at no cost as well. After opening up just five months ago, the school has already enrolled 971 students. The school has two sister programs in South Carolina and Colorado,

“I see virtual learning as a valuable tool to achieve the goal of getting kids to come back or to stay in school,” says Monica Henson, the school’s executive director. “When you put great teachers and technology together, you can create self-paced programs where kids can move at a faster pace that is more interesting to them.”

Helping Underserved or At-Risk Students

While many of the students drawn to the program might be considered drop-out risks, such as teen parents or victims of bullying, the flexibility offered by studying at home has also appealed to everyone from students looking to graduate early, elite athletes like ice skaters and equestrians who spend their days training, and home-schooled kids whose parents are unable to provide adequate training in subjects like biology. As a whole, the school’s population is 16 percent special education students, 72 percent from low-income families (almost double the statewide average), and 61 percent minority children. And, there are early indicators of success. On a recent state-wide writing test, Provost Academy students scored well.

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Provost Academy teachers can customize the curriculum, provided by EdisonLearning, to accommodate a wide-range of students and this new approach has strong appeal to instructors wanting to expand their reach. “We’re able to give students the kind of individual attention they need on the things they need,” says Jenny Boyter, who as director of instruction, works with the school’s 27 teachers to develop a flexible curriculum. “We have a lot more freedom that we did in the traditional brick-and-mortar environment I’ve worked in for the past 18 years.” The school also offers students the chance to meet with teachers, counselors and community outreach managers in person at a series of Magic Johnson Bridgescape Learning Centers, which can accommodate 50 students at a time. The first center opened in Atlanta in the Woodruff Volunteer Center, named for Robert Woodruff, the former CEO and Chairman of Coca-Cola. Additional centers are scheduled to open in Macon, Savannah and Augusta in the coming months.

The launch of Provost Academy and the growth of other blended learning programs across the country offer hope to researchers like Staker — whose own two children attend such a school in Texas — that the so-called achievement gap will narrow. 

Staker says, “We can now empower students with adaptive, customized software so that those who have fallen behind have tools to catch up."