Advancements in online education (commonly referred to as virtual learning) continue to sweep the nation, with ever-growing numbers of educational institutions endorsing the format as a viable alternative to the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom setting. In fact, the impact of emerging technologies on educational delivery is changing the way students and educational institutions interface. According to a recent research project on learning styles and technology published in EDUCAUSE Quarterly, new millennial-style learning strategies incorporate a multidimensional approach, focusing on the influence multimedia has on learning styles that elicit student learning based on seeking and synthesizing rather than on assimilating from a single source.
As online learning has become commonplace at universities through-out the country, the option is now being explored to a greater degree by teachers and administrators at the secondary and elementary levels. This movement toward virtual teaching and learning follows on the coattails of the charter and alternative school movements intended to expand educational delivery systems that maximize individualized instruction rather than the traditional one-size-fits-all school model. Online learning is considered to have the highest level of interactivity of most distance education delivery systems, and the student-centered focus and the scheduling flexibility with virtual learning truly changes the traditional agrarian model.
Interest levels in adapting teaching and learning to virtual spaces are high, and state legislatures are responding to the growing demand for increased funding of publicly supported online learning initiatives. Learning Point Associates estimates that more than 600,000 students were engaged in some form of online learning in 2005, representing more than 1 percent of the K-12 population. In 2006, the number is estimated to have exceeded 1 million students, with a large concentration of participants in Florida, Michigan, Utah, and California. In fact, more and more states are beginning to require that all high school students take at least some form of an online course as a graduation requirement. As this upward trend continues, the number of high school students completing part or all of their requirements online is expected to continue. As of fall 2006, more than 24 states have policies that address cyberschools and elearning, including statewide online learning programs, with district-level virtual programs in place in additional states. Private schools affiliated with universities have also created virtual high schools including National University, the University of Miami, and Brigham Young University.
The opportunities for online learning to positively impact student achievement resonate beyond today's classrooms. Online teaching and learning occurs in many forms, including supplemental online pedagogical tools that enhance traditional on-site classrooms, hybrid courses that combine both on-site and online components, and full-fledged online courses where all teaching and learning occurs virtually. All of these options are providing students, teachers, and parents with an increased educational choice and alternative venues for learning.
Appeal of Online Learning
Because today's school-age students are considered to be "digital natives" familiar with using technology in their everyday social lives, it is natural that education institutions would adapt instructional methodologies and initiatives to the digital realm. Online learning possesses many attributes and provides a more-intimate learning experience that promotes individual student responsibility in areas such as setting priorities, managing assignments, and focusing on subjects with minimal distraction. Online classes come in many shapes and sizes, with some formats structured similar to a standard 50-minute class session. More-progressive virtual programs enable students to access the curriculum by subject areas with more individual preference on time management, priority setting, and participation in discussions. Online learning provides students with 24/7 access to how they are doing, avoiding periodic student progress reports.
Reasons for enrolling in online courses vary tremendously. Some students use this venue to accelerate course work or to access additional electives not offered at smaller private or public schools. Other students may choose online classes for more-flexible scheduling options, enabling them to participate in more extracurricular activities. In online classes, students are guaranteed a voice and more equity in attention from teachers. Classroom participation can increase when students are enrolled in online classes because of limited distractions and less social pressure from peers. Conversely, teachers can further facilitate learning and spend less energy on classroom management. Students attending full-time online programs can focus on the learning experience from the privacy of their homes rather than on catching a school bus, fighting traffic, or shuffling from class to class.
Online learning also affords students the opportunity to interact in a more-heterogeneous classroom environment without geographic, ethnic, or socioeconomic restrictions that they might otherwise encounter in a brick-and-mortar setting. With online learning, students aren't easily prohibited from participation in the classroom by physical distractions or social attitudes that often exist in traditional school settings and serve as deterrents to learning. From a teacher perspective, the online environment eliminates many classroom-management issues, allowing teachers to focus more directly on instruction rather than on behavioral issues. Through online learning, participation can often be more thought provoking and relevant as student input becomes a permanent record in the class.
Another attribute of an e-class or online learning is the collaborative relationship fostered between teachers and students. Assignments and projects can be more individualized and tailored to each student's learning styles or interests as well as to further encourage students to assume more responsibility or ownership for their learning of content and standards. Students of all grade levels and environments appreciate this tailored instruction and the ability to recognize value in their course work and its relevancy. The online learning environment has the ability to cater to students needing a higher level of connectivity in the instructional process, encouraging a stronger onus of responsibility in their personal achievement because they are more vested in the process.
The current shortage of highly qualified teachers meeting NCLB (No Child Left Behind) standards can also be addressed through online learning. Through virtual classes, schools and districts have access to a larger pool of qualified teachers not inhibited by geographic barriers. For example, small rural schools that incorporate virtual learning may have
access to the expertise of qualified teachers in more-urban or -accessible geographic locales. Another part of the demand for qualified teachers that online learning can fulfill is the need to expand curricular offerings, including advanced-placement courses.
The skills students acquire in online courses help better prepare them for the 21st-century work force as well as for college. Information literacy is an acquired competency that is critical in order to maximize learning opportunities in an online class and will become more mainstream in a traditional classroom setting. In the educational setting as well as in the workplace, an optimal balance of high-tech and high touch for training and for teaching will need to be leveraged.
Online learning can be very effective in standards-based content delivery. It is important that traditional educators do not have preconceived notions that academic rigor and subject mastery of curriculum standards will suffer at the expense of online delivery. The appeal to multiple learning styles and the opportunity to reinforce learning and subject retention in an online classroom can positively impact student achievement. The key is quality curriculum reinforced by great teaching with creative pacing based on the learner's needs.
Virtual education has the potential to even the playing field and to help overcome socioeconomic barriers by providing quality curriculum, optimal instruction, and a wealth of resources. Through the use of the Internet, online students can virtually tour the world and participate in frequent "field trips" from their own computers. This helps develop a better understanding of discipline-specific topics from a global perspective, without geographic barriers such as history or current developments in cultural, social, scientific, economic, and geographic areas. Well-designed courses with engaging chats and threaded discussion provide a venue for meaningful dialogue on subjects as well as opportunities for students to interact with other students in different time zones and belief systems, while engaging in collaborative discovery. Communication skills and the level of inquiry can improve when diverse learners' discussions go beyond content and seek mutual understanding.
Finally, online learning gives students greater access to course electives not available at their own schools as well as the ability to accelerate graduation requirements and to seek instruction and learning according to their own schedules rather than instruction confined and directed by the traditional 50-minute bell. Virtual learning is in its infancy, but progressive educators are recognizing its potential applications for special-needs students, second-language learners, and at-risk
students, as well as for gifted learners on the other end of the continuum. Integrating technology through multimedia and creative online classroom design can be adaptive to all disciplines and grade levels.
Role of Library Specialists in Supporting Online Learning
As teaching and learning move more and more into the online realm, school libraries and the role of media specialists must also evolve to continue to be responsive to student and teacher needs, providing the necessary infrastructure that supports the dynamic and changing ways students and teachers use library resources. Libraries adapting to the digital movement are often referred to as "cybraries," where the majority of traditional library services are tailored to more-directly support movements in online education.
Online students are no longer restricted to specific school hours and often complete their work during the evenings, late at night, early in the morning, and on weekends. With the dismantling of the typical "school day," library services must also adapt to better support learning and teaching. Media specialists play an important role in developing the means and the resources that allow students and teachers to participate in library services in new ways that complement online learning. Libraries as media centers provide a wide array of tools that enhance learning through technological advancements and the immense amount of resources on the Web.
The role of today's librarians or media specialists becomes critical in assisting schools and teachers in establishing the knowledgebase, the application tools, and the resources necessary to implement online learning at the home school or to strengthen already-established online learning initiatives. Media specialists have the opportunity to serve as liaisons working with teachers and students. Three key areas identified where library specialists can serve as facilitators and provide essential pedagogical and technological foundations are in the areas of curriculum development, online instruction enhancement, and student-learning support in the virtual environment.
In the early stages of online educational initiatives, curriculum developers and instructional designers can partner with media specialists and the home library to identify multimedia and electronic resources that would enhance the learning experience for teachers and for students. Media specialists can move from traditional forms of services to digitized collections that more-directly serve online populations of learners. As the "go-to" people, librarians have the opportunity to maintain current knowledgebase and expertise on emerging technologies and how these technologies can be used to further support and advance virtual classrooms. For example, e-libraries can develop storehouses of electronic reserves or Webliographies to serve as curricular resources, links to full-text materials available online, and maintain a relevant knowledgebase in best practices associated with online teaching and learning.
The migration of library services to the virtual arena directly affects students who use digital media as an educational tool rather than just for socialization. Online social environments that libraries can use for educational-service purposes include chat or instant messaging, gaming, and other virtual spaces traditionally used for socialization such as MySpace or Facebook. Opportunities exist for media specialists to develop and to sustain virtual services including email reference, instant messaging, and phone services to students and teachers. Adapting these traditional virtual social spaces to be used for library support services can be effective in meeting students on their own virtual turf while enhancing the online environment for more-educational purposes. Media specialists also facilitate the use of Internet tools such as the "Googlization" of knowledge, Wikipedia, and free-versus-subscription Internet services. With such access, media specialists
can help teachers further inte-grate Internet resources into their curriculum.
Reference librarians serve as data collectors who support teaching by subject area and by grade level. Serving as mentors, media specialists ensure that teachers possess the technological and research skills necessary to effectively deliver dynamic and relevant online courses. As data collectors and liaisons, librarians work with teachers to develop online reserve lists and Webliographies of sources that are discipline-specific and intended to further enhance and strengthen the virtual learning experience for students. Examples of how media specialists can function in this capacity include expertise on the use of online sites such as Google Earth or virtual museum tours and how these can be used to further enhance discipline-specific teaching and learning, such as in geography or art history courses.
The digital face-lift of educational delivery also requires new levels of collaboration between administrators, curriculum developers, teachers, and media specialists to develop optimal learning models that incorporate emerging technologies to enhance online courses. The leadership role of librarians and media specialists as architects who provide support in integrating premier virtual tools to online learners can help close achievement gaps and meet the individual needs of all types of learners.
Nancy Rohland-Heinrich is general manager and Brian Jensen is manager of curriculum and instruction at National University Virtual High School. Rohland-Heinrich's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Jensen may be contacted at email@example.com.
National University Virtual High School and the National University Library
National University Virtual High School (NUVHS) offers more than 50 online courses to students from more than 80 schools in California and throughout the U.S. Students have the opportunity to accelerate course work, recover credit, or supplement courses through instructor-led online classes. The National University System has been involved in elearning since the mid-1990s, serving more than 30,000 online learners each year. NUVHS's affiliation with National University as the largest educational provider of teachers and school administrators in California provides tremendous resources and expertise in methodology, pedagogy, and effective online instruction. The National University e-library has strengthened the quality of virtual teaching and learning through an amassed collection of almost 100,000 electronic books, 16,600 electronic periodicals, and access to a vast assortment of aggregated databases supporting all disciplines.