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Last modified: Friday, July 24, 2009

Virtual learning viewed as increasingly viable option for Indiana students, survey finds

New CEEP survey results show school administrators say cost is a barrier

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 24, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new survey of Indiana superintendents, principals and school counselors finds that a majority see virtual learning as a way to enhance academic offerings in public education. Sixty percent of respondents to the "2009 Survey of Virtual Learning in Indiana," conducted by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) at the Indiana University School of Education, said they are offering or may offer online courses in six different areas, including alternative education, gifted and talented education, and instruction for homebound students. But just half of the respondents indicated their school would pay for virtual instruction and cited instructional cost as a barrier to offering more online courses.

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Advanced placement and courses that provide high school and college credit can be offered in virtual settings.

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In April and May, CEEP surveyed superintendents, high school principals and high school counselors and received 194 responses. CEEP conducted the study for the purpose of providing information to state policymakers and virtual learning providers in conjunction with the Indiana Virtual Learning Consortium (IVLC). The IVLC is a five-member venture of Indiana-based providers of virtual learning to promote growth of high-quality virtual education. Members are the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities; the Indiana Online Academy; Indiana University High School; the Indiana Virtual Academy; and Ivy Tech Community College.

"Educators view virtual education as a viable mechanism to meet the learning needs of students," said Terry Spradlin, associate director for education policy at CEEP. "It's something they're doing to a limited extent now, as far as utilizing virtual education to meet the curricular needs of students. But without question, educators view it as a mechanism to expand course offerings to meet curricular gaps."

Nationally, the number of students taking online courses is growing exponentially. Federal statistics reported more than 1 million students took online courses in the 2007-2008 school year, up nearly 50 percent from just two years before.

Bruce Colston, chair of the Indiana Virtual Learning Consortium and the director of the IU High School, said the survey indicates a growing acceptance that virtual courses can have a larger role in Indiana schools.

"Initially, I think credit recovery was viewed as the primary use and probably has been the primary use," Colston said. "However, the idea seems to be growing that it can be used to meet curricular demands that otherwise can't be met."

Colston noted that advanced placement and courses that provide high school and college credit can be offered in virtual settings.

More than half of the respondents reported they currently use online courses for math and English/language arts courses to some extent. At least 40 percent indicated they are either currently using or are interested in using online courses in every subject area, with some variance by subject.

Cost is a barrier for expanding online options. The survey indicated a hesitance by school corporations to pay for courses. The majority of those that indicated they would pay for courses (66 percent) said they would pay only $100 or less per student per credit, significantly less than the cost of most online offerings in the marketplace.

"Very few school systems pick up the cost of virtual learning courses," Colston said.

IU High School has provided scholarships and reduced rates (for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch) to schools, but Colston said the fees are still too much for many. More than half the respondents cited concern about course quality and academic integrity, something Colston said the IVLC was formed to address. While the Indiana General Assembly did pass a cap on virtual charter school enrollment during the recent special session, it hasn't passed other regulations governing virtual education.

"We've been trying to communicate that we probably want to create some reasonable -- not too intrusive or cumbersome -- but reasonable type of standards of quality assurance," Colston said, "So that school systems and teachers can have confidence those courses their students are taking meet state standards and they're of quality."

While schools are more receptive to virtual education options, 58 percent still resist a mandate that high school students complete at least one online course. Michigan has passed such a law and others are considering it as a way to ensure students gain experience using technology for collaboration and learning.

"They're not ready for that just yet," Spradlin said. "They're probably concerned about (the state) mandating curriculum as much as local flexibility." Spradlin noted a similar response came from Indiana residents in general during the annual public opinion survey released earlier this year.

A complete report on the survey is available online at http://ceep.indiana.edu/projects/PDF/IVLC_Final_Report.pdf.

CEEP, Indiana's leading non-partisan education policy research center, promotes and supports rigorous program evaluation and education policy research primarily, but not exclusively, for educational, human services and nonprofit organizations. Center projects address state and national education questions. CEEP is part of the IU School of Education. Learn more about CEEP at http://ceep.indiana.edu.

Media Outlets: The following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Web site at http://education.indiana.edu. Look for this news release under "News" on the home page. The sound bites below have a clickable link to hear and to save the files.

Colston says virtual education is starting to move beyond its traditional role in Indiana:

"Initially, I think, credit recovery was viewed as the primary use and probably has been the primary use. However, the idea seems to be growing that it can be used to meet curricular demands that otherwise can't be met. It can help with schedule conflicts. It can provide access to dual credit and AP courses that aren't available in smaller schools and schools without the resources to support them. It can help students deal with creative resolving of schedule conflicts, graduate early. Just meeting the needs of special students, such as home-bound students who often struggle to keep up with class and keep pace with their schools while they're homebound, whereas distance education can provide an opportunity there."

While the IVLC is trying to promote quality online education, Colston says the state can do more to assure educators:

"And sometimes that's something they don't have good access to, that information. The need for the state to begin looking at standards, we think is really critical. Currently there are none, and that means a guidance counselor can recommend a student take a virtual course from any provider in the nation, and as long as that school put it on the transcript it counts. We've been trying to communicate that we probably want to create some reasonable, not too intrusive or cumbersome, but reasonable type of standards of quality assurance, so that school systems and teachers can have confidence that courses their students are taking meet state standards and they're of quality."

Colston said right now most of the cost of online courses falls upon the student's families:

"Very few school systems pick up the cost of virtual learning courses. If students need to do credit recovery or students want to work ahead or break a logjam in their schedule or take an AP course or dual-credit course so they can get an academic honors diploma, most often that's going to come out of their pockets, the parents' pockets. Occasionally we get schools that pick up part or all of that, but that's rare."

Spradlin says the survey clearly finds there's more acceptance of online learning in Indiana's schools:

"Without question, educators view virtual education as a viable mechanism to expand course offerings to meet curricular gaps that are not being met presently with traditional brick and mortar classroom instruction. So across the core subjects as well as the elective course areas, educators said 'yes' they would consider using or utilizing virtual education more frequently in the future and to meet very specific learning needs of students as well, for credit recovery, dropout prevention, homebound students, alternative education. They saw it as a viable mechanism to meet the customized learning needs of students."

One surprising result, Spradlin says, was the finding that most administrators opposed requiring an online course to graduate:

"It is the wave of the future. A lot of professional development is being provided in the corporate community online now through Webinars and through other means, technological means, so we can't ignore the wave of the future. That learning via multiple modes is certainly something that parents expect or want, students want customized learning experiences. So the school districts need to be reflective of coming trends and do give serious consideration to virtual education, but we were surprised when we asked educators as well as, this was also reflected in our public opinion survey statewide of Indiana citizens, that there is still reluctance to support such a requirement that high school students complete at least one course online. So they're not ready for that just yet."

With the legislature passing a virtual charter bill in the special session, Spradlin says discussion is progressing on virtual education:

"So the legislature certainly has begun to examine those parameters, for which the policy should be established, a guideline for virtual education. They're not finished with the work yet. So this survey certainly is another layer of information to help inform and influence and shape sound education policy to allow for this viable alternative for public education delivery to be established and perhaps to thrive to meet the unique needs of students. There are a lot of students who are still falling through the cracks in our traditional public education system. Kids that are very low performers, or even high-ability kids where the traditional course work isn't fully meeting their needs, so supplemental virtual education is a viable mechanism to meet those learning needs of those students. So we need to continue the discussion and be forward thinking about virtual education and ensuring we have a proper context, policy context and a funding mechanism so that virtual education can indeed be a successful viable component of public education."