For years now, advocates of online learning have been pushing virtual education as an answer for students who want a more personalized, self-paced, and technology-based approach to their education.
In other words, as a solution for middle school girls.
That's perhaps the most surprising finding of a new report released today by nonprofit educational research group Project Tomorrow here at ISTE 2012 in San Diego, the 11th such report to be released as part of the yearly Speak Up survey that asks students, parents, teachers, and administrators about their ed-tech habits, aspirations, and attitudes.
And for middle school girls, those attitudes are decidedly in favor of a learning experience that gives them more control and flexibility, said Project Tomorrow chief executive officer Julie Evans.
"They want more attention from their teacher, they want to be able to work at their own pace, and they seem to have an understanding that an online class provides that kind of environment," said Evans at the report's release event this morning. Also, "we definitely see a spectrum of digital native-ness, with the leading edge of those truly digital natives being in middle school, so we're very honed in on middle school being a different slice of student than the high school student."
This report, a five-year retrospective on the growth of online learning based on the 2011 Speak Up survey of more than 400,000 educators, compared against the initial Speak Up survey in 2007, focused not only on the nature of their attitudes toward online learning, but how and why they have changed. Today's report was issued in collaboration with Blackboard K-12, and followed two reports presented to Congress this spring based on different data portions of the same survey.
Educators, today's report found, are influenced directly by their own exposure to and experience with online professional development courses. In 2011, more than half reported involvement with online professional development, an increase of 148 percent from 2007. Thirty percent listed online PD as their preferred method, and a direct correlation was also found between educators participating in online PD and their likelihood to recommend online and mobile learning for students.
Parents, too, appeared to be influenced by online learning opportunities encountered in their professions, with more than a third likely to support more investment in online learning for their child's school, an increase of 80 percent since 2007.
And in a major logical flip, Evans said, many elementary and middle school-aged students who desired access to online learning opportunities did so because they had been exposed to their parents' favorable experience. It's a trend not unlike "The Pass Back Effect," in which researchers have found even very young children to become increasingly adept at using mobile devices because of parents who let their children use them at intervals during their daily life.
"I think for some time we've thought about some of these technologies in silos," said Evans, "but the truth of the matter is, one, that should not be the way we're thinking about it, nor does that really make sense. So on one level we were like, 'Oh my gosh, look at this data,' but on another level after we thought about it, it made sense."
Sheryl Abshire, the chief technology officer of the 33,000-student Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La., said she's seen first-hand the public shift in attitude toward educational technology and, in particular, online learning opportunities. In lean economic times, she said, a 10-year-old local tax levy this past year used to support online learning projects in the district "passed by the largest margin it has ever passed," she said in a discussion about the new report.
Guy Romero, the assistant superintendent of educational services for the Murrieta, Calif., school district said he also sees that public support in his Southern California community. But he cautioned that until policymakers in many states also shift their attitudes and revise funding policies to allow schools to allocate more funding toward digital programs, progress will be limited.
"It's less about the tools of online learning, and it's more about a complete revolution that's occurring in education," Romero said. "Until we can get the legislators to look at different ways to set rules and policies, we just have to find very creative ways to use our money, and cross our fingers that if we're ever audited, they won't take our money."