Hours before the sun rose and you opened your newspaper this morning, a Mesa high school senior reported for calculus class and turned in an assignment to her teacher.
A 12-year-old competitive ice skater headed for the rink in Tempe with her entire school tucked into her gym bag. A third grader from Gilbert battling cancer slept peacefully having finished all November’s curriculum in preparation for his next bout of chemotherapy.
These Arizona students and thousands like them around the state are pioneers in the 21st century education phenomenon known as K-12 online learning. Aided by technology and guided by licensed, specially trained Arizona teachers, these students can truly learn anytime and anywhere, whether for one course or their entire school program. The virtual schools that serve them have headquarters around the state, with several of the largest — including Mesa Unified’s Distance Learning Program and two independent charter schools — clustered in the East Valley. Arizona’s online learning community is the toast of the town as more than 1,200 online educators from every state and around the globe gather in Metro Phoenix for the annual Virtual School Symposium of the North American Council for Online Learning.
As president and CEO of NACOL, I am especially proud to see Arizona take its place at the forefront of the online learning movement that is transforming American education. I worked in Arizona under Gov. Jane Hull as the strategic communications manager and legislative liaison for the Government Information Technology Agency from 1999-2002, the years when K-12 online learning was launching in the state.
Fast forward six years later and the whole country is experiencing an online learning boom. K-12 online learning is growing 30 percent annually. As of this fall, 44 states including Arizona offer significant online learning opportunities for students, either through online courses to supplement their “brick-and-mortar” schooling, or complete virtual school programs, or both. It is estimated that more than a million American students are enrolled in some form of online learning, and some Harvard experts have projected that as many as half of all high school courses in America will be online by 2019.
Why is online learning catching on so quickly? As the Arizona Legislature noted in its passage of the state’s pilot program in 1998, online learning can “improve pupil achievement and extend academic options beyond the four walls of the traditional classroom.” Students whose schools don’t offer advanced placement courses or specialized classes such as Mandarin Chinese can pursue these online.
Those whose learning style requires individualized instruction at their own pace can find such accommodations online. Students who are missing credits they need for graduation because of scheduling conflicts or past failures can make these courses up online and graduate on time. Online learning can also be an answer for students who are pursuing elite sports or performance careers, or those who are homebound due to illness.
But beyond meeting the immediate learning needs of specific students, online education may be essential for our nation’s long-term success in this globally competitive world. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has identified key skills such as technology literacy, self-directed learning and problem-solving that are explicitly addressed through online learning. Meanwhile, nations such as China, Singapore, Turkey, New Zealand and Mexico have leapfrogged ahead of the United States to embrace online learning as an essential part of their education system.
Arizona’s recently announced goal of boosting the number of college graduates to meet the national average can be furthered by ensuring that more students successfully complete a rigorous high school college prep program. All across the United States, students take online courses to help become college-ready.
So kudos to Arizona for its early embrace of the future of education. Its challenge now is to make sure that embrace is broad enough to provide every Arizona student access to online learning opportunities.
Susan Patrick is president and chief executive officer of the North American Council for Online Learning and former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.