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Digital Learning Enrollment Triples: U.S. Department of Education

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The digital revolution has officially hit America's classrooms.

As school districts nationwide cut back on essentials, three quarters of them plan to expand their digital offerings over the next three years, according to a new survey reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal Education Department's research arm.

The new data released Tuesday looks specifically at "distance education courses" in public schools: full-credit courses that are taught remotely through technology. The national survey, conducted in fall and winter of the 2010-2011 school year, found that 55 percent of 2,310 school districts had students enrolled in these courses, ninety-six percent of which were given at the high school level.

And as some states require online courses and others turn to the Internet for cost-cutting alternatives, enrollment is booming. According to the study, these online courses had 1.8 million self-reported enrollments, more than three times the amount reported in the 2004-2005 school year.

The report helps clear up the murky picture of who takes online courses and why. Most districts surveyed said they chose to use distance courses to access educational offerings they would have been otherwise unable to provide. Students on both ends of the academic spectrum took these courses: advanced students used them to access AP courses and college-level classes, while students performing below grade level used them to recover credits they missed in earlier years. Five percent of districts surveyed listed "generating more district revenues" as a "very important" reason for offering online courses.

These courses are largely unregulated. "There's a lot of outsourcing of online learning," said Jon Becker, a Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education professor who specializes in digital education. "Whenever that happens, regulation becomes a real issue. We saw the same thing with supplementary education providers under No Child Left Behind," he added, referring to the inconsistent quality of tutors that are required for failing schools under the federal education law.

And according to the study, only 70 percent of school districts that offered online courses tracked attendance reports of the courses. Just 65 percent of these school districts tracked the number of students who withdrew from digital classes.

"You're going to have a tough time studying the effectiveness of these courses if you don't know about it," said Bill Tucker, an analyst at the think tank Education Sector who specializes in the topic. "Tracking in general is improving, but it's not where you need it to be to really understand the efficacy of these things."

In addition to lax regulations, a recent Ohio University study found that students of online courses tend to cheat more often, at least at the college level.

While much has been said about the follies of private-industry online education providers, the survey showed that half of all school districts that reported online course enrollment used colleges as providers; 47 percent used independent vendors; and 33 percent reported using full-time online schools.

The data show that online courses are quickly becoming a reality for high school students -- in addition to other recession-age budget cuts. The online learning report came out the same week as a National Governors Association survey that found that in addition to steep cuts to education made during legislative sessions, 18 states made midyear cuts to school programs recently. While the financial outlook is less bleak than it was a year ago when 39 states made such cuts, bread-and-butter programs are still being slashed. Class sizes are increasing and supplementary or special programs, such as arts courses, face major cuts.

The NCES report also shows that online learning is highly concentrated in the southeast, a region in which many states are acutely suffering from budget cuts and poverty.

But Tucker said these two trends might not be at odds with each other. As districts cut back on more specialized courses, online learning could fill in the gaps. "In some ways, this is a way that people are saying, this is the way we can provide access to things that we can't afford anymore," Tucker said. "That's why you see the uptake in rural areas."

These trends leave some worrying that computers might soon replace teachers. But, Tucker said, this concern is unfounded, as good online courses employ real live teachers.

"It's a false tradeoff," he said. "It's not the end of the student-teacher relationship, but a different kind of relationship."

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