Inside the school

Benefits and Audiences of Online Learning in K-12 Environments

November 23rd, 2009 By: Curtis J. Bonk, Ph.D in Articles, Teachers' Corner

Web-based instruction has transformed traditional notions of education so swiftly that there has been scant time to reflect on why this is occurring. In a June 8, 2009 front page story in my local paper, the Herald Times, Bruce Colston, Director of the Indiana University High School (IUHS), was interviewed about the growth and benefits of programs like the IUHS. Colston outlined ten distinct audiences for the courses at the IUHS. The audiences he mentioned and several additional ones are listed below.

Ten Benefits and Audiences of Online Learning for K-12 Environments:

  1. Homebound and Those with Special Needs: Some students have physical disabilities, medical, or psychological reasons which prevent them from attending a traditional classroom space or building. There are many reasons why online and correspondence courses may be the preferred delivery methods for those who are homebound or with special needs. Those with special needs such as dyslexia or significant visual impairments can work at their own pace in a non-competitive environment. As such accommodations and associated success stories expand, the general public will increasingly realize that learning is no longer the sole province of schools.
  2. Gifted: Some students have an internal drive to learn more than their current school or community can provide. Gifted students and those with a high need for achievement often want to take more challenging and higher levels courses which can be found online. Other students might have a particular gift in music, art, theater, athletics, writing, or some other area which takes them away from a normal school day schedule. There are even special online schools for young people who compete on the pro circuit in golf or other sports.
  3. Advanced Placement (AP): Some students take online courses for advanced placement course preparation or credit. Online learning becomes an additional option for students wishing to accelerate their learning while maneuvering through hectic lifestyles due to work, athletics, home chores and family responsibilities, or extensive volunteerism.
  4. Home-Schooled: Often parents who are home-schooling their children welcome the additional supports that online course materials and resources offer. When their children enter high school, online courses might fill in the gaps where they lack expertise. In addition, degrees received from accredited high schools may prove beneficial in the college admissions process.
  5. Rural Students: Some young people are in communities which are too small to offer advanced and specialized courses such as physics, calculus, Latin derivatives, third year Spanish, or ancient civilizations. Some schools simply do not have physics, humanities, or French teachers.
  6. Drop-Outs, At-Risk Youth, and Students Slightly Behind: Catching up with one’s peers is sometimes valuable. The availability of online courses can address those who are just a course or two behind their peers as well as those who have dropped out or who are close to dropping out. Online options provide a way to keep them in school. In fact, often students find online options to be exciting or in tune with their preferred style of learning. In effect, there are multiple ways to achieve success and obtain a high school degree. Life does not end just because a young person did not find success attending a brick and mortar high school.
  7. People Living Outside the United States: Online courses and programs work well for students when they travel with parents or caretakers who have found employment overseas or decide to take an extended vacation. Some might not have completed their high school degrees but are serving in a military setting or international outreach program. Online learning allows them to complete their degree while working in a foreign country or in a tour of duty overseas. For others, the completion of certain online courses that they did not take in high school might qualify them for a particular post or initiative in another country.
  8. Natives of Foreign Countries: For various reasons, many people in South America, Africa, Asia, or the Middle East may prefer that their children take courses from virtual schools in North America or other English speaking countries. Some parents, keenly aware of the growing use of English around the world, want their children to practice or improve their English skills. At the same time, parents in North America might enroll their children in private schools in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. Many parents simply want their children exposed to the more diverse world in which they will later work.
  9. Bullied or Do Not Fit in: As we are all aware, some students do not have good experiences in schools. As a result, they might have significant social reasons for not wanting to attend school. We all can likely name students who have been bullied in schools. Now such students can stay home and learn without such daily fears.
  10. Pregnant: Some girls withdraw from school because they are pregnant or have small children to care for at home. Taking courses online while caretaking enable many of them to complete their degrees and perhaps enroll in college since they can work on their own time.

The list that Bruce Colston provided is fascinating. A few days later, he told me of an additional category of students that virtual schools serve—adults who lack a high school diploma. While Colston admits that those with weak academic skills are better served by GED degrees and adult education programs, a high school diploma can result in higher future earnings than settling for a GED. As he puts it, “A thousand dollars spent to finish high school online can lead to many thousands of dollars in future earnings. Also the distance education format integrates well into the busy lives of adult.”

What Colston’s insights tell us is that online courses allow schools to extend their services beyond traditional students and far beyond its designated borders.

Bonk, C. J. (2009, July). The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint.

Bonk, C. J. (in preparation). The World Is More Open: An Extension of “The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education.”

Rebecca Robbins (2009, June 9), ‘”Distance Students are ‘a Varied and Interesting Lot,’’’ Herald Times Online, Available

Curtis J. Bonk is Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. He has a popular blog called TravelinEdMan and is the author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education as well as Empowering Online Learning: 100+ Ideas, for Reading, Reflecting, Displaying, and Doing.