By Cait Etherington May 20, 2017
Required credits in English, mathematics, science and even physical education are the norm nationwide. Now, five states require online learning credits for high school graduation and more states are considering introducing the requirement. The move not only suggest a growing enthusiasm for online learning but also a recognition of the fact that moving forward, students will need to be comfortable learning online in order to succeed at the postsecondary level and in the workplace.
In 2006, Michigan became the first state to pass an online learning credit requirement for secondary-level graduation. The Michigan Merit Curriculum requires at least one online course or online learning experience for each student. This is not surprising, however, since Michigan was also an early adopter of online learning.
By 1998, the State of Michigan was already predicting that the future of education would be online and in response, the state established the Michigan Virtual University, which in turn led to the Michigan Virtual School initiative to provide online courses to public schools. Michigan Virtual University, a not for profit, offers support to school districts that are setting up online learning initiatives, a catalog of available courses, guidance on best practices, and educational standards updates. Michigan Virtual University is also been used to support teachers’ continuing education opportunities. As Bruce Friend, the CEO of the Virginia-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning explains, “There is a whole policy developed around it, and Michigan is a pioneer in that.” But Michigan is not the only U.S. state that now views online courses as required.
Following Michigan’s lead, Florida in 2011, Virginia in 2012, and Arkansas in 2013 introduced online learning requirements. More recently Alabama had joined the group and now requires that all students complete one online/technology enhanced course or experience prior to graduation. At the moment, a growing number of U.S. states are contemplating introducing legislation that would make online learning credits a requirement for graduation. But this raises the question: How does the push for required online learning credits serve both students and school districts?
For student, the advantages to learning online are clear. High school students can use online learning to take additional courses over the summer and subsequently free up their schedule to take early AP courses. As any college admissions officer will tell you, this looks good on one’s transcript. However, online learning can also enable high schoolers to easily enroll in college-level courses. Once again, this is advantageous when applying to college, and it can lead to notable financial benefits. Taking an in-state online course is typically very affordable. If a student goes on to attend an out-of-state college (and over one third of students do), these transferred credits can drastically reduce the time and cost of one’s college education. Beyond these obvious advantages, there is the experience itself. When high schoolers enroll in online courses, they are learning how to engage with online learning management systems and acquiring the discipline needed to learn at their own pace.
For schools, the move to online learning credits also carries several advantages. First, there is the notable advantage of being able to provide their students with a wider range of courses. While not a major consideration for large high schools in urban areas, in rural and remote communities, online education can expand a school’s curriculum. A high school that doesn’t have the staff or resources to offer creative writing, astronomy or AP politics can now offer these courses at a distance. Second, both schools and school districts can use data generated by learners’ interactions with course materials to gain insights into how students learn.
Much like the investment in MOOCs at the university level, the move to embrace required online learning credits at the high school level reflects a recognition that data generated from online courses can be used to improve both online and in school courses now and in the future. San Diego Unified District uses the Edgenuity credit-recovery courses, which are approved by the University of California. As David Vande Pol who directs San Diego Unified’s online learning initiative observes, “This is data driven. But we are trying to give the best possible blended online experience to students who also get guidance from teachers.”