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The K–12 Online Evolution: 21st-Century Solutions for 21st-Century Learning

By Rajeev Arora - Posted Nov 1, 2009
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In his book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, discusses a global, web-based playing field and the sharing of knowledge and work in real time, without regard to geography, distance, or even language. As Disney says, “It’s a small world after all.” And as a result, an increasing number of K–12 academic institutions are going online, changing the way they teach in response to how today’s students today want to learn.

Industry organizations such as the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) believe online learning is more than a trend. It’s revolutionizing global education, and those academic institutions with strong elearning strategies will advance to help prepare students to reach their full potential in a digital age. Today’s students want more options when it comes to education, and online learning is providing new opportunities for universal access to the best possible education for all students, regardless of ability, background, income level, or geography.

A Few Fast Facts About K–12 Online Learning

The iNACOL publication, “Fast Facts About Online Learning,” provides ample evidence that online learning is growing explosively. Here are some highlights of the K–12-related research, trends, and statistics presented in that document.

• K–12 online learning is a new field consisting of an estimated $50 million market, which is growing at an estimated annual pace of 30% annually.

• The overall number of K–12 students engaged in online courses during 2007–2008 is estimated at 1.03 million, a 47% increase from 2005–2006 (The Sloan Consortium).

• Online learning is currently used by 4% of K–12 students, and this number is expected to grow to 15% by 2011 (“America’s Digital Schools 2006”).

• 44 states have significant supplemental online learning programs, significant full-time programs (in which students take most or all of their courses online), or both.

• 34 states offer state-led programs or initiatives that are designed, in most cases, to work with existing school districts to supplement course offerings for students.

• As of January 2007, there were 173 virtual charter schools serving 92,235 students in 18 states.

• 57% of public secondary schools in the U.S. provide students access to online learning.

• 72% of school districts with distance education programs planned to expand online offerings in the coming year.

What’s more, not only is online learning for K–12 growing rapidly, it can be as effective as face-to-face learning. According to “A Synthesis of New Research on K–12 Online Learning” from the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL), on average, students seem to perform equally well or better academically in online learning. In addition, teachers who teach online report positive improvements in their face-to-face teaching as well.

21st-Century Students Learn Differently

Because 21st-century students learn differently, 21st-century educators need the tools to reach them. Online learning is no longer about sitting in front of a computer and working in a vacuum, without contact with instructors and other students. 21st-century students demand more, including personalized, interactive learning that meets the needs of mobile learners, facilitates formal and informal learning, and fosters a sense of community.

Synchronous collaboration software, such as the virtual classroom, allows for real-time interaction between students and instructors. The desired outcome of using synchronous communication tools, including integrated VoIP and teleconferencing, application and desktop sharing, polling and quizzing, and recording, as well as technologies such as multipoint videos, shared whiteboards, web tours, and breakout rooms, is to add the value of real-time interaction rather than just static content.

While a virtual environment for real-time teaching and learning is key, other modalities, such as on-demand and mobile learning, are equally important. Thus, a 21st-century learning environment can include a wide variety of other teaching and learning technologies and tools, including the ability to organize and package content and activities for a live session, record learning objects, and podcast. Other useful technologies include interactive whiteboards, tablet PCs, simulations, wikis, blogs, virtual world applications, and social networking sites—the list goes on.

Welcome to EDU 2.0

For elearning to be effective, it must be accessible, engaging, and collaborative. The current online learning landscape is evolving in ways that engage more students in more ways, promote active learning, and improve student outcomes. Because the opportunities are almost endless, today’s K–12 academic institutions are limited only by their collective imaginations. It’s what we call EDU 2.0, and it enables educators to do the following:

Create effective distance learning: Live elearning enables academic institutions to deliver real-time, instructor-led classes to students, regardless of their locations and with all the advantages of traditional face-to-face classrooms. Online technology addresses multiple learning styles and levels the playing field for those not previously successful in traditional learning environments, from special-needs students to gifted students, increasing self-esteem and motivation. It can also easily be integrated with asynchronous learning or management content systems.

Extend the brick-and-mortar classroom: Live elearning and web collaboration technology can also be used in conjunction with on-site activities in the physical classroom environment. Schools can connect online and on-site students, enable instructors to present engaging content on-site and remotely, leverage teachers between schools, record content for students who miss a class or need help preparing for exams, and bring in remote lecturers and experts.

Build learning communities: Nothing enhances learning better than peer-based discussion and mentoring. With live elearning and web collaboration technology, students can collaborate on projects, provide peer mentoring, and create online communities to discuss a variety of topics. Some schools have even used the technology for extracurricular activities and groups. At the same time, educators can connect with peers, share content, generate discussion, and more.

Enhance professional development: The way to prepare students to compete in a global economy is to first prepare our educators. With synchronous elearning technology, academic institutions can offer cost-effective opportunities for instructor collaboration and professional development, helping to recruit and retain qualified instructors. Remote experts can address staff to keep them up-to-date on new technologies, policies, strategies, and teaching methodologies. Instructors can use their time more effectively by attending sessions without traveling and can even play back recorded sessions at their convenience.

Leverage limited teaching resources: Live elearning technology enables academic institutions to teach across geographic boundaries. For example, if there are too few students to justify a class at a single campus, the technology can be used to broadcast the class to remote students at other campuses, schools, or locations around the world.

Facilitate communication and collaboration: No longer in their infancy, tools for working collaboratively at a distance are easier to use and are more commonly available. As the tools have matured, the practice of online communication and collaboration is especially valuable at the state or school district level. Web collaboration technology provides an enhanced meeting environment while reducing travel and related costs. At the same time, individual classrooms or schools can connect with counterparts worldwide to exchange information about their respective countries and cultures.

Enhance infrastructure support: Academic institutions can use synchronous learning technology in many other ways, including internal training, research, help desk support, and online library resources. Many schools use live elearning or recorded tutorials to provide remote training for software applications and learning/content management systems, policies and procedures, best practices, and more. The technology can even be used as part of new-student orientation and for parent/teacher meetings.

Real People, Real Results

Here are just a few examples of how the virtual classroom and related technologies are making a difference on a global level.

The Princeton Review provides preparation for a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate school admission tests. The organization uses synchronous elearning to augment asynchronous online courses and to provide one-on-one private tutoring. All teachers are equipped with pen tablets or tablet mice, which has worked well, especially for science teachers. The programs are growing at a phenomenal pace because people are looking for a more affordable, convenient solution that provides the same quality as the face-to-face classroom.

Fire & Ice is a series of interactive, international dialogues between students in various countries around the world. Sponsored by Elluminate, Inc., the company I work for, and by other socially conscious organizations, the initiative enables teachers and students in the most remote parts of Africa, Asia, and South America to collaborate in real time and to share experiences and ideas worldwide. Students use multipoint video and an electronic whiteboard with their virtual classroom to connect in real time.

While traditional brick-and-mortar schools work for many children, they restrict many others. The K12, Inc. learning program ( is used by more than 50,000 students and 1,500 teachers in public virtual schools across the country. The virtual classroom is an invaluable tool for online assessment. Teachers meet with students to focus on a specific challenge area, and students can demonstrate targeted skills so that they can proceed to the next level.

At Elluminate, we envision a 21st-century learning environment where technology is an integral part of daily activities. In this classroom without walls, educators present exciting content, record content for easy access worldwide, and engage students to create a dialogue across borders. In addition, instructors invite guest lecturers and remote experts and extend the classroom beyond its physical boundaries to leverage limited resources and provide access for all, regardless of ability, background, income, or geography.

For academic institutions with reduced budgets that hinder the growth of online teaching and learning, the availability of education stimulus funding presents an opportunity to drive this initiative. However, since this new funding will not be available on a recurring basis, organizations must act quickly to make strategic purchases that will provide the most long-term benefit for education. For K–12 today, the online environment has the potential to facilitate learning without limits, where no child is ever left behind. The time to embrace this enabling technology is now.

Rajeev Arora is vice president of marketing and strategy for Elluminate, Inc. Reach him with questions or comments at

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