Computing to school, online schools gain popularity

More students booting up computers to go to school
As the population of "digital natives" continues to grow, even school is migrating online. Between the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years, the number of students in online schools and classes increased 63.6 percent. Illustration by Ruby Thompson of Avalon School in St. Paul
“The digital world can be much more engaging to many students than the traditional lecture or sit-and-get system.” -- Sally Wherry, supervisor of the Center for Postsecondary Success at MDE

Imagine being able to speak Chinese during your high school Chinese class with a native speaker standing on the Great Wall. As online courses and schools continue to develop, opportunities like this modern version of the pen pal via Skype are becoming more common.

Minnesota public school students can now take either just one or two courses through the Internet, or enroll full-time in online classes.

Online high schools are becoming more popular among high school students, said Sally Wherry, supervisor of the Center for Postsecondary Success at the Minnesota Department of Education, which currently oversees public online learning in the state.

In the 2009-2010 school year, 11,803 students enrolled in online classes offered by certified providers in Minnesota.

According to a national report about online learning, Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning, 5,042 Minnesota students were enrolled full-time in online schools in 2008-2009, compared to 8,248 full-time students in 2009-2010, an increase of 63.6 percent. The report estimates about 1 percent of students in Minnesota are enrolled in online school full-time.

“The digital world can be much more engaging to many students than the traditional lecture or sit-and-get system,” Wherry said, who called today’s teens natives of the digital world.

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Wherry said some of the reasons students enroll in online courses, or school, are: they need flexibility in their schedules, may have been bullied or have an illness that prevents the student from attending a brick-and-mortar school. Another big reason is online learning may offer niche courses students may not have access to through their regular public or private school.

“It allows schools that are under-resourced to enhance educational opportunities for their students. For instance, if you’re from greater Minnesota in a smaller (school) district and interested in a medical career, you may be able to watch surgery online. It gives students greater access to people and ideas,” Wherry said.

Jess Hadler, of Minneapolis, is a senior at BlueSky Online School – the first charter school to offer full-time online enrollment in Minnesota in 2000. Hadler enrolled during winter break of her freshmen year because of her motocross career, which forced her to miss a lot of school.

Hadler’s former school wouldn’t give her homework in advance, which forced her to constantly play catch up. “I love online school because it is very flexible … The positive things are that I can do it on my own time and don’t have to sit in classroom,” she said.

Online schools can be public or private. Wherry recommends students attend state-certified schools if planning on a public online school. Click here for a list of state-certified schools.

Private schools of any kind can earn what’s called accreditation – an outside organization examines the school and certifies it offers a quality education. Click here for a list of state-approved accreditation agencies.

Wherry said any student considering full-time online school should be cautious where they enroll. “There are some wonderful online schools, and there are some very convincing frauds,” she said.

Thanks to a 2005 state law, Minnesota students enrolled in a public, brick-and-mortar school can take up to 50 percent of their classes online. Students can also enroll full-time in public, state-certified schools instead of their traditional school.

The cost of attending public, online classes is free for Minnesota students enrolled with providers certified by the state. The state pays the cost of the class, just like it does with traditional schools. “The money follows the student,” Wherry said.

Online schools are not for every student. Students who skip school and aren’t self-motivated might not do as well at an online high school, she said, students should consult with parents and counselors before enrolling.

Wherry anticipates continued growth in the enrollment of Minnesota students in online schools, but isn’t sure if the day will ever come when 100 percent of students will attend through a computer.

“When we’re living in a world where Facebook and cell phones are fomenting or supporting revolution in societies that are basically illiterate, it’s not much of a stretch to consider that one day students will get some or all of their education through their cell phones. Technology is so explosive; it’s hard to predict,” Wherry said.