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Jon Davis and his mother, Beth Davis, check out textbooks on display at an informational meeting for Indiana Connections Academy in this photo from 2007. A two-year moratorium prevented the virtual charter school from opening, but a pilot program will allow for 200 students to enroll in a virtual charter school this fall.

Virtual learning supporters

Indiana’s public education community is often characterized as obstructionist. But as the state moves further into the brave new world of cyber-learning, it might well be state educators leading the way. A new Indiana University survey on virtual learning found healthy support for online instruction among school superintendents, principals and counselors.

That support, along with a promising pilot program for a virtual charter school, could help sway opinion among Hoosiers, who still express strong reservations about classes taught entirely online.

Last week, the Indiana Department of Education selected Hoosier Academies to run a pilot program for up to 200 students in grades one through five this year, expanding to 500 students in 2010-11.

Hoosier Academies is a good pick for the pilot program, which was approved by the Indiana General Assembly in the last session as a moratorium on virtual charter schools expired. The charter school operator currently operates two hybrid learning centers in Muncie and Indianapolis, with students receiving most of their instruction in a traditional classroom and the rest via computer, facilitated by an online instructor. About 375 students were enrolled in the two centers last year.

The pilot program will allow for instruction entirely online, although students must have a medical disability or other need preventing them from attending school or show why the virtual school is a better alternative than a traditional school. To ensure the program doesn’t supplant home-schooling programs, Hoosier Academies must track enrollments to ensure 75 percent of students attended a public school this past year.

While the state moves cautiously forward with a charter model for virtual learning, administrators in brick-and-mortar schools are looking at online opportunities as well. IU’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy surveyed about 200 school officials this past spring and found that most online learning now takes place in Indiana high schools.

Most of the courses available are in English/language arts or math, although more than half of the school officials indicated that they are considering adding online social studies and foreign language courses. Almost two-thirds of the respondents indicated their schools are using online courses for credit recovery, which allows students to work online to earn academic credits for courses they have failed or are about to fail.

The survey found that officials also see the potential for using computer courses for scheduling conflicts – when a student must choose between orchestra or trigonometry, for example. Online learning could also help students at risk of dropping out because they are bored with school and could allow small high schools to offer Advanced Placement or dual credit courses through a university.

The problem, the survey found, is the same one school officials cite for traditional classes: funding. That was cited over concerns about program quality and cheating as the greatest barrier to expanding online instruction.

But the new instructional method could be a money-saver and a solution to challenges traditional schools now face.

“Virtual education might be a resource to help resolve several of these barriers encountered by corporations and schools, especially scheduling difficulties, a lack of teacher capacity and expertise, and a lack of classroom space,” according to the study.

The survey’s authors suggest the small response rate they received to the online survey – just 3 percent of Indiana principals and counselors – might skew the results to those already supportive of virtual learning. But the support among public school administrators should go far in convincing skeptics of the value and need for online instruction, which is growing rapidly.

n addition to Indiana, 43 other states have some type of virtual learning, with about 1.03 million students in K-12 participating in some sort of online instruction. That’s a 47 percent increase since 2005-06.

Combined with encouraging results from a well-crafted pilot project, the public school support for online learning could help convince Indiana residents of the value of online learning. There are lots of minds to change, according to an earlier CEEP survey. In the center’s annual Public Opinion Survey on K-12 Education in Indiana last fall, 74 percent of Hoosiers said they opposed virtual charter schools, and 32 percent expressed opposition to using Internet-based instruction to supplement the traditional high school curriculum.

CEEP officials have recommended that all Indiana students complete at least one online course to graduate from high school – a reasonable requirement given the increasing use of online instruction in higher education and in workplace training programs.

Hoosiers are still wary, but a successful charter school effort and more online learning in traditional schools could tip the balance.