Online learning is a solution for South Carolina public education

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Jameson Taylor

Imagine a public education system able to provide access to high-quality instruction, regardless of where a student lives.
Imagine schools able to give individualized instruction to potential dropouts. Or course offerings that encourage students to master their studies, instead of simply show up for class.
In fact, this vision for the state’s public school system already exists; it’s called online learning.
According to a new report by the S.C. Policy Council, online learning is not just the future of public education, it is one of the most dynamic forces in education today. As such, it represents a way our schools can move beyond many of the traditional limitations of a brick-and-mortar classroom and connect with students on a one-to-one basis.
Online learning allows students to take courses unavailable at their local school, resolve scheduling conflicts, and retake classes to graduate on time. And these goals are accomplished without having to build more brick-and-mortar schools.
Online learning can help address South Carolina’s high dropout rate. The vast majority of dropouts don’t drop out because of failing grades: they do so because they aren’t mentally engaged with what’s happening in the classroom. Online learning helps at-risk students overcome this obstacle by inviting them to enter into a one-on-one conversation with their teacher – and making it impossible to pass on to the next topic without fully mastering current content. Thanks to online learning, targeted, individualized instruction that focuses on concrete academic progress is replacing mere “seat-time.”
Of course, online learning isn’t a quick fix or gimmick for all that ails public education. Standards for online courses are just as rigorous as they are for traditional courses. But unlike the brick-and-mortar approach to education, online learning isn’t geared toward one type of student. It has worked well with at-risk students, students in urban and rural areas, gifted students, and those with special needs. It also offers diverse opportunities for social interaction – for instance, through sports clubs, homeroom clusters, and academic field trips. Just as important, it teaches students to master new social communication tools that are revolutionizing the way we work, learn and live.
Online learning is also no longer at the untested, theoretical level – it’s already a reality. South Carolina currently has five online public charter schools, with a sixth scheduled to open this year. These are full-time, accredited, diploma-granting institutions. The state also operates a virtual school program that allows students to take online courses in an otherwise traditional setting.
Student enrollment at the state’s online charter schools has more than tripled over the past three years. Similarly, enrollment in the S.C. Virtual School Program has doubled. A recent survey by the S.C. Department of Education found that nearly a third of South Carolina’s students – including many minority students – are already using online learning to graduate on time.
Another 20 percent are taking online courses not offered at their school. Success and completion rates are also very high, with nearly 90 percent of students passing their chosen online course.
And while online learning shouldn’t be thought of as a cost-free way to run public education, it is, in fact, cost-effective. Per pupil costs at the state’s virtual charter schools are at least 25 percent lower than at traditional public schools.
Demand for online learning is growing, and it’s easy to see why. The danger is that policymakers will think of online learning as a kind of luxury – an educational option that’s helpful for many students, but one that doesn’t merit the same kind of support as traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
But online learning isn’t a luxury. It’s an essential part of the solution to our educational challenges – and an additional parental choice in a system that desperately needs it.

Jameson Taylor is director of research
at the S.C. Policy Council.