Iowa – A robust system of online learning

[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

7 Responses to “Iowa – A robust system of online learning”

  1. Scott,

    Really enjoying this series for the Register. I know our legislature is considering selling the ICN network statewide but haven’t pulled the trigger yet. They need to do this soon, it is an antiquated system that gets little if any use. I suggest that they sell the ICN and take that money and invest it in a state-wide virtual school. It might not fund it completely but it would give it a pretty good start. Why aren’t the people at the DE as forward thinking as they need to be? Meanwhile, more and more kids are missing out on coursework that would help them with their 21st Century Skills and more. In my humble opinion, we need to get moving on this sooner than later. Thanks.

  2. I just attended a VPL (Virtual Prescriptive Learning) conference. My school is going to be using this program extensively next year. The program is 100% aligned to our state’s standards. Students first take a pre-test. From that pre-test, a prescription is issued based on what standards the student has already mastered and what standards were missed. The student works through his prescription of lessons, which include study guides, viewing streaming video, taking notes, etc. At the end of the lesson prescription, he takes a post-test. Based on that result, we can either move the student on to a higher level course or go back and re-assign certain lessons addressing that individual student’s needs. The program has server based and web based applications and students are required to do some off-line work as well, such as PowerPoint projects and presentations. We are looking forward to implementing this tool into our instruction.

  3. There is a difference between online learning and QUALITY online learning. I am not really impressed with many of the tools I have seen, but the Iowa Learning Online community has really pushed the envelope towards constructivist opportunities and differentiated opportunities for students online. I would also like to take a look at the VPL items outlined above.

    How do we match the needs of our students with a statewide delivery system that is effective and focused on 21st century skills.

    As we sell the ICN system (yes, it is outdated), that fiber will be helpful, but what will it do to the monthly costs of the uplink for schools and governments? I guess I thought that the reason it was still state-funded was the bargain cost of bandwidth.

  4. Did you see lines 1.10 through 1.16 in the proposed study bill, Dr. M?

  5. @Gordon: I did. What’s your thinking?

  6. THanks For a nice blog.

  7. Online learning is a good option provided that it is being done in an organized way. The internet can also be used for self-study by exploring the writings of experts. For example if you are studying psychology, you may find numerous articles and whitepapers online which can help you in researching any subject in depth. Many of these writings may not even be available in text books yet. Use it as your library. It is very possible you will even find notes by active professors. For example, here is a website which belongs to psychologist and full-time professor Maurice F Prout. He has taught doctoral-level graduate students for over thirty years and has stuffed all of his experience and knowledge gained through years into his publications.

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