[This is Post 2 for my guest blogging stint at The Des Moines Register.]

Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.” This week I am blogging about 5 key levers that I think are necessary to move Iowa schools forward and help our graduates survive and thrive in this new digital, global age in which we now live. Yesterday I discussed 21st century curricula. Today’s post concerns online learning opportunities for students.

When most people think about online learning, they think about adults taking online university classes. Or they might think about the online training that occurs in many workplaces. But online learning opportunities occur in the K-12 sector as well and are increasingly popular with students and their families.

The Sloan Consortium estimates that at least 1 million K-12 public school students took an online course last year. This represents approximately 2% of the national K-12 public school student population and is a 22–fold increase since 2000. About 20 states have statewide virtual high schools that deliver online courses to students across the state. Others, like Iowa, have state-led programs that help deliver some online courses to students.

Florida appears to be the model for the rest of the country. The Florida Virtual School offers almost 100 online courses and is expected to serve more than 80,000 students this year. Its enrolllment is growing at a pace of 50% per year. North Carolina, Utah, and Alabama also have very robust statewide virtual schools.

In addition to creating statewide virtual schools, states are enacting a number of other policies to facilitate online learning. For example, both Michigan and Alabama now have state laws requiring that students have an online learning experience before they graduate. Florida recently passed a law requiring every school district to provide online courses (either itself or by contracting with others) for its K-8 students.

The reasons are numerous for the popularity of online courses with schools, students, and parents. For many school districts, online courses are the only way to provide high-level classes such as Advanced Placement, foreign language, advanced science or math, and other courses. Other districts are finding that online coursework can be an excellent option for at-risk students or credit recovery; for homebound, incarcerated, or home-schooled students; or for meeting the needs of students who simply may not be successful in a more traditional classroom environment. Meta-analyses of existing research show that student achievement in face-to-face and online courses is approximately equivalent. Students and parents value the flexibility, accessibility, and convenience of online coursework. Many online courses also allow students to proceed at their own pace; collaborate with students from other schools or countries; and/or incorporate digital technologies into their learning.

Online learning opportunities for K-12 students are exploding across America. The United States Department of Education found that four years ago over a third of school districts already had students taking online courses. Unfortunately, here in Iowa we are NOT keeping pace. The most recent data from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) show that only a few hundred of the 480,000 K-12 students in Iowa are enrolled in online courses. Entities such as Iowa Learning Online, the Iowa Online AP Academy, and Kirkwood Community College’s High School Distance Learning Program all are delivering courses to students. The Des Moines Public Schools also are exploring some online learning options. However, even if online enrollments in Iowa soon will number in the low thousands, the overall availability of online learning opportunities for Iowa students still is extremely low.

A robust online learning infrastructure for students makes a lot of sense for the state of Iowa (and I’m glad there’s a bill in the Iowa House to consider it). If we’re honest with ourselves, we will recognize that most of our school districts will NEVER be able to provide the curricular diversity that most of our graduates need to be effective digital, global workers and citizens. If we’re truly honest, we also will recognize that the Iowa Communications Network (ICN) is not a viable future option. The ICN is a closed, aging network and the course offerings (and monies) there, like everything else in the world, must move to the Web. Whether it’s a statewide virtual school or some other model, we must significantly increase the number of online courses available to Iowa students if we are to provide them access to the high-quality learning opportunities envisioned in the Iowa Core Curriculum

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Scott McLeod, J.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and coordinator of the Educational Administration program at Iowa State University. He also is Director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE). He blogs regularly at www.technologyleadership.org.