Online Learning Is On the Upswing—In the Public Mind At Least

Of all the innovations and policy reform proposals in education, it is online learning that is gathering public support most rapidly.  In just one year—from 2009 to 2010—the percentage of Americans who think that high school students should be given credit for courses taken online has jumped from 42 percent to 52 percent.  Opposition has dropped from 29 percent to 23 percent, with the balance taking a neutral position.  Despite the reluctance of teachers to support the idea, and despite its cost-saving implications, Democrats are more favorable to the teaching of high school courses online than Republicans are.

All this is reported in the 4th annual survey of public opinion on educational issues by Harvard’s Program on Educational Policy and Governance and Education Next, which I, with William Howell and Martin West, help to direct.  We also found that support for letting middle school students take online courses for credit moved upward from 35 percent to 43 percent, with opposition falling from 34 percent to 26 percent.  (Results from the full survey—covering a wide range of educational issues–were released today.)

The shift in opinion is noteworthy.  On most issues, public opinion is fairly stable from one year to the next.  Support for charter schools, for example, ticked upward by just 2 percentage points—from 42 per cent to 44 percent—between 2008 and 2010. Opposition decreased from 19 percent to 16 percent over the interval, while those neither supporting or opposing slipped somewhat.

When it comes to virtual learning, I would like to make the case that most Americans have read Clay Christenson and Michael Horn’s new book, Disrupting Class or my account of virtual learning in Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, but book sale figures suggest that something larger must be  at work.  When Bill Gates announces that the best college courses will be delivered online within five years, high schools—and even middle schools—will not go unaffected.  Keep your eye on one of the biggest forces for change yet to hit public education—technological innovation.

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