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Is Online Learning Saving Districts Money?

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In the midst of tremendous growth in online learning opportunities there's an ongoing debate about how cost-effective it is for districts and states to provide virtual courses versus traditional classroom offerings.

Katie Ash focuses on this issue in her Ed Week piece this week. There are competing views and data about the cost benefits of online programming.

Many education leaders are interested in starting or expanding virtual schools so they give students' alternatives, as well as more opportunities to take courses that might not be widely available where they are.

A couple of days ago I met with a San Diego school official to get a demonstration of the district's new virtual school, iHigh. So far, 200 students are taking courses, and 30 are doing so full-time, through iHigh. The district gives each student a Netbook with a built-in Internet card that allows them to access the online campus and courses at their own pace. They are in touch with teachers electronically after an in-person orientation. The teachers make assignments, review the students' work, and monitor their progress through the portal.

The courses are offered by Apex Learning, a digital curriculum company, which costs the district money but may actually save additional time and expense associated with creating their own courseware. Bernie Rhinerson, the district's chief information officer, said Superintendent Terry B. Grier is convinced the virtual school will expand and equalize opportunities for students across the district, provide alternative routes to graduation for those who are struggling in traditional classes, and save the district money.

That's how many proponents of online learning see it as well, as Katie outlines in her piece. But questions still remain, and the data is still emerging.

Meanwhile, San Diego officials expect the program to expand, perhaps to entice as many as half of all high school students there to take virtual courses. We'll have to check back with them once the program moves beyond the early stages.

Of course, to have a good program you have to have good teachers. But most teachers will need some solid professional development to take their show on the superhighway. The cost of online professional development is a whole other topic for sure, but you can start here, with Michelle Davis' piece at Digital Directions.

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I highly recommend online education but make sure its a good program. My suggestion is to stay away from generic schools and try to find a program that will add credit to your resume. Cornell, Boston University, and even Harvard all offer online classes and degrees.

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