Maryland should make the most of online education

High school students must feel like Marty McFly.

In the classic 1980s movie "Back to the Future," Michael J. Fox portrays a teenager who uses a time machine to travel back to 1955. During his journey, Marty sees what it was like to attend school with his parents' generation.

Teenagers heading back to school this fall must also feel like they're traveling back in time — leaving the high-tech world of 2010 to return to schools that have remained largely unchanged since the 1950s.

While technological innovations are improving and transforming most areas of modern life, our schools are like relics from a bygone era. At home, youngsters are exposed to technology and information that would have been unimaginable to earlier generations. A child can now go online and access unprecedented amounts of information. The answer to most questions is as near as the click of a mouse.

In school, most children are being taught in the same manner their parents and grandparents learned. Despite a few computers in the back of the classroom, instruction happens the old-fashioned way. About 15 to 20 students sit in rows of desks, listening to their teacher and trying to absorb the lesson. Their learning occurs mostly during school hours and depends on the talent of the teachers who stand before them.

This will soon change. Technological innovations are transforming the way that students learn. Online learning and so-called virtual education programs now offer innovative and customized ways to teach students. A recent estimate found that the number of K-12 students participating in online learning programs topped 1 million in 2008 — a 47 percent increase since 2006. This number will grow rapidly over the next decade. In their book "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns," Michael Horn and Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen predict that within 10 years, 50 percent of all high school courses will be taken online.

Today, widespread virtual education might seem like science fiction. But online learning programs are proving to be a practical and effective option for a growing number of students. Full-time virtual school programs are giving students the chance to learn from home, at their own pace, from some of the best teachers in the world. In-school "blended learning" programs that use computer programs to supplement traditional teaching are providing students with customized instruction that provides a more rewarding learning experience.

Growing empirical evidence shows that online or virtual learning programs can be more effective than traditional instruction. A 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Education's Center for Technology in Learning found that, "students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction."

Maryland students are beginning to experience the benefits of virtual education. In 2002, the state created the Maryland Virtual Learning Opportunities program. Some students across the state can now earn high school credits by taking classes at the Maryland Virtual School, which offers more than 50 different courses in a wide range of subjects, including many Advanced Placement classes. During a recent school year, 300 students earned more than 900 credits through the program.

Unfortunately, Maryland students' online learning options are limited compared to students in other states with cutting-edge online learning programs. In Florida, for example, 84,000 students attended the Florida Virtual School, which offers 90 different courses. In Pennsylvania, 7,000 students now attend PA Cyber — a statewide, online public charter school. Both programs have proven to be effective and popular options with parents and students.

According to the Center for Digital Education, Maryland currently ranks 24th among the 50 states in offering online learning opportunities. Today, students can only take classes from the Maryland Virtual School if they receive consent from their local school district.

As online learning sweeps the nation and transforms American education, Marylanders should ask why their children can't benefit from the most innovative learning models. They should demand that policymakers in Annapolis make the state a leader in the online learning revolution.

How much longer will we wait to bring students back to the future?

Dan Lips is a senior fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and author of a new report: "How Maryland Can Become a Leader in K-12 Online Learning." His e-mail is

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