Online Learning: A Literal New World of Possibilities for Minnesota K-12 Education

Executive Summary

(I)  Introduction

When it comes to government’s essential role in funding education, the holiest of grails is significantly improving quality while simultaneously constraining costs.  Suffice it to say, no level of government, in or out of Minnesota, can point to many successes in melding and achieving these two imperatives in elementary and secondary schools.  Yet without indulging in the kind of exaggerated expectations and claims frequently voiced in K-12 circles, the case to be made is that of all reforms on the educational table, taking greater advantage of online learning does, in fact, promise to help children learn measurably more without forcing taxpayers to spend measurably more.

Education can be customized as never before because of ongoing technological advances.  This is a very big deal given how boys and girls have different types of intelligence and learning styles, as well as different starting points and pace.

(II)  Definition

Online learning provides instruction which is teacher-led and may be synchronous  (communication in which participants interact in the same time space such as videoconferencing) or asynchronous (communication that is separated by time such as email or online discussion forums), and accessed from multiple settings (in school and/or out of school buildings).  Blended learning involves combining online learning with other modes of instructional delivery.

(III)  Minnesota Basics

Much of the discussion in the main text draws on two roundtable discussions involving a combined 14 Minnesota educational, policy and other leaders in July 2011.  The section opens, though, by taking advantage of very helpful legwork by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) in its September 2011 evaluation of K-12 online learning in the state.  For example:

  • Online learning opportunities have been available to some public school K-12 students in Minnesota since at least the mid-1990s.  An estimated 20,000 Minnesota elementary and secondary students took at least one online course in 2010-11.  About 8,000 of those took online courses offered by their own schools, and about 12,000 took courses from state-approved “online schools.”  While these numbers seem reasonably substantial, they represent less than 3 percent of K-12 students in the state.
  • Minnesota’s Online Learning Option Act was first passed in 2003 and has been amended several times since.  According to the law, online learning courses and programs must be rigorous, be taught by a teacher licensed in Minnesota, meet or exceed state standards, contribute to grade progression, and incorporate other more traditional teaching methods, including frequent student assessment.  In general, funding for online learning is not “new” money, but rather, a redirection of funds that the state has already allocated for each student; more specifically, dollars follow students.

(IV)  Roundtables

1.    Accountability

Early in the first roundtable it was suggested that the state’s statutory and regulatory climate was in “pretty decent order” and not in need of great change.  To which one participant objected, contending that Minnesota has “incredibly tight regulations”—among the top handful of most overly restrictive protocols in the country—in regards to both teachers and anyone else who provides “any level of instruction.”  To which another panelist said that Minnesota’s legal framework “puts us in a pretty good position relative to other states,” as it generally allows students to take classes at their own discretion.  It also calls for funding to follow students on a credit basis, “which is not all that common, from what I understand, in other states.”  This latter point, he concluded, “is probably the biggest thing.”

2.     Teaching and Learning

Two licensing issues are particularly salient in regards to taking greater advantage of online learning in Minnesota.  The first pertains to the prohibited use of educational assistants or paraprofessionals; men and women who, while qualified for certain assignments, are not licensed teachers and, therefore, not allowed to “instruct” students.  The second pertains to the requirement that for men and women who are, in fact, licensed as teachers, Minnesota-issued credentials are the only ones that count.  Panelists unanimously agreed that online schools and programs in Minnesota should be allowed to take greater advantage of paraprofessionals.  They also all agreed that schools should take greater advantage of the world’s great scholars, Nobel Laureates included—even if they don’t hold Minnesota teacher licenses.

 3.    Post-Secondary Enrollment Options

Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program, which affords high school juniors and seniors opportunities for taking college classes for free, is particularly hospitable to online instruction by the simple fact that colleges and high schools can be separated by many miles.  It follows, therefore, that large numbers of students—not just the most accomplished but a reasonable spectrum of them—would be educationally well-served if online learning and PSEO were joined more closely and promoted more energetically.   Doing so also would constrain costs on the part of both government and families, as sizable numbers of students would wind up graduating college faster.  Several participants suggested expanding participation in PSEO to include high school freshmen and sophomores.

4.    Entrepreneurship

“I wonder,” one panelist said, “if we know the extent of entrepreneurship related to online learning going on in Minnesota.  There are probably a lot of people sitting in their dens writing or doing good things.  I wonder if we have an idea just how big an industry it is.”  Still there was a sense among some participants that Minnesotans suffer from a “lack of urgency” when it comes to the need for “dramatic change” in matters like these.

(V)  Conclusion and Three Broad Recommendations

1.    Take far greater advantage of the huge online possibilities of Post-Secondary Enrollment Options.  For reasons of geography if none other (high schools and selected colleges are usually not particularly near each other), PSEO lends itself very well to online learning.  For this to happen, though, ways need to be found to better promote the program to students and their families insofar as school districts don’t see it in their best interest to do so.  A necessary first step in this direction is rescinding the state prohibition against colleges and universities actively informing high school students of the academic and economic benefits of taking college classes, free of charge, as high school juniors and seniors.

2.    Review all state education laws and regulations for their fit with online learning’s new possibilities for helping both teachers and students do their jobs better, while also helping to constrain costs throughout the system.  Current Minnesota education laws and regulations are the sum of decades of lawmaking and rule making, with many of those years predating desktops and laptops, not to mention iPhone models 1, 2, 3, 4, or 4S.  The 2011 Legislature wisely established a sunset-type process for evaluating major state agencies and activities, with an eventual eye towards amending, streamlining, and perhaps deleting as appropriate.

When it comes to K-12 education more specifically, the precise aim is for a state task force to train an even more focused eye on making Minnesota’s statutory and regulatory environment as conducive as possible to energetically and accountably expanding online learning opportunities and participation.  Particular emphasis should be directed at most effectively assessing and validating student learning in this new environment, as well as expeditiously evaluating and approving proposed online courses, programs, and schools.

3.    Make it possible for Minnesota and national scholars and other experts to teach online classes.  Currently, all online instruction must be led or filtered through licensed Minnesota teachers.  This is overly restrictive as it can suggest unattractive assumptions about the quality of teachers in Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and all the other states.  But more to the germane point, the requirement closes off a portion of the nation’s talent at the same exact time the Internet is opening it up.  This is even more acutely the case when it comes to stellar scientists, mathematicians, historians, writers and others from around the globe.  Without suggesting they routinely have the pedagogical skills to effectively engage children and teenagers, many such exceptional men and women doubtless do.