Log on learning: More students attending online schools
With a 7-month-old baby at home and a full-time job as a Dairy Queen manager, Brittney Legrand doesn’t have much time to fit high school into her day.
The 18-year-old dropped out of Grand Junction High School with just three credits earned toward graduation. She was trying to figure out a way to return to school when she read an article about GOAL Academy, an online high school that opened a branch in Grand Junction in August. She decided it would be the best fit for her schedule, and so far she’s loving it.
“I wanted to graduate from high school not just for me, but for my son,” Legrand said. “Sitting in class bores me. This is a different experience. You can sit at home, and you don’t have a time limit.”
Legrand usually does her school work in the evenings when she’s off work and her son is sleeping. She hopes to become a nurse after earning her high school diploma. She isn’t sure if she’ll go to college online or in a traditional classroom.
Legrand is one of thousands of Colorado students submitting papers and tests online and conversing with teachers over the phone or via e-mail or Skype. Online enrollment for Colorado kindergarten through 12th-grade students increased 12.5 percent to 13,093 between October 2008 and October 2009, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
Rigor attracted Jil Echols’ 11-year-old son, Aaron, to online school Connections Academy two years ago. Echols said online education has helped challenge her son, who was “absolutely bored” in traditional school and is now taking a ninth-grade math class.
“You can learn at your own pace,” Aaron said. “Public school wasn’t going fast enough for me.”
Jil Echols said online schooling is easier for her to handle as a parent than home schooling.
“If there’s something you don’t know, there’s a teacher to ask,” she said.
Taking classes online can decrease opportunities for bullying because students aren’t as likely to be teased for academic prowess or what they wear to school when they don’t see fellow classmates on a daily basis or know what classes other students are taking, Connections teacher Nicole Hulick said. Hulick lives in Clifton but has first- and second-grade students all over Colorado.
“The stigma of ‘I’m in a high reading group and you’re in a low reading group’ is gone,” Hulick said.
Grand Junction resident Rebecca Bench, who has four children enrolled at the school, agrees the school’s focus “is on academics more than social pressures.” But that doesn’t mean her children are isolated, she said.
“They’re involved in sports, scouts, church events, Connections field trips; I feel they get a well-rounded social life,” Bench said.
Students across the state have 22 online programs to choose from. Another 12 school districts offer online programs to their students, including School District 51. The district has offered online classes for a few years through Novel Stars and NovaNet, but it had no completely online school until this fall, when the school board voted to create Grand River Virtual Academy for high school students.
District 51 Academic Options Director Ron Roybal launched the academy this year with 38 students, all of whom had dropped out of high school before being recovered by the district.
The local chapter of Pueblo-based GOAL has another 55 students from Rifle to Durango that would not be in school otherwise, according to Regional Director Paul Valdez.
The percentage of students scoring proficient or better on 2010 Colorado Student Assessment Program tests was often lower at online schools than the state average, but Valdez isn’t a fan of the label that online learning is not for intelligent students. Instead, he said it’s right for a select group of students that tend to learn better outside the classroom in a virtual setting, whether they’re on the road with a professional sports team or working during the day or want to work at their own pace.
“We are not a miracle cure. It’s an option. It’s all about options,” he said.
Not just for kids
Mesa State College enrolled nine students in online classes in 2004. Enrollment grew to 200 the next year. Then 400 the year after that.
This fall, 1,750 students are taking at least one online course from the college.
Mesa State isn’t alone in this trend. Online college enrollment grew 17 percent year-over-year to include more than 4.6 million students in fall 2008, outpacing the 1.2 percent growth in overall college enrollment, according to a Sloan Consortium report.
All but about 370 of the students currently taking an online course at Mesa State also take classes on campus. One of those combination students is Maggie Scott, a 21-year-old senior who is taking two courses online and four in the classroom.
Scott said she was hesitant about taking online courses because she got a bad grade in a partially-online class in the past. But the virtual classroom allowed her to come out of her shell.
“I’m quiet, and I’m better at saying things online,” she said.
The classes have tests, reading assignments and papers like any other class, but she can go online to ask or answer questions at any time and has a weekly quiz due by midnight Sunday instead of having to take it at a certain time in a set place. Scott says she likes the flexibility, but it’s not for everyone. She has several friends taking online classes, and the “self-motivated” ones like it best.
“The ones who don’t like it are the ones who don’t remember to do stuff,” Scott said.
Online learning deletes the campus experience from higher education, but for people working in rural communities without a college nearby, that can be more acceptable than commuting. Ben Keefer, Mesa State’s director of extended studies and distance education, said more than 85 percent of the school’s online students live in Colorado, but not all are in Mesa County. Some students are in the military and log on from Iraq or Afghanistan.
Keefer said there is no typical online student. The split between traditional, college-age students and nontraditional, older students enrolled in online classes is about 50-50. Many have at least a part-time job that makes going to school during the day difficult to schedule. Some are full-time students. Students can log on throughout the day, but the most popular time for online learners to visit their virtual classroom is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., a statistic that holds true nationwide.
Online students earn the same diploma traditional Mesa State students receive, and the course work is similar to what traditional students learn in the brick-and-mortar classroom. That’s partly a result of most of the 70 to 80 online instructors at the college also teaching in traditional classrooms, Keefer said.
The college became accredited this spring to offer start-to-finish online degrees. Keefer said online learning does not readily work for some departments, such as art, but it works for pretty much any general education course. Even some subjects one may be skeptical about working online, such as teaching and nursing, can be taught via computer with supplementary experiences like lab work and teaching practicum in schools, he said.
“Online isn’t for everyone and every major,” Keefer said. “There are areas it works well, and some it doesn’t.”
Michael Lynch, the director of academic affairs for the University of Phoenix campus in Lone Tree, said some people may be surprised to learn online school is more than e-mailing back and forth with a professor.
“It’s a much richer experience than that, involving interviews with experts, simulations, Web-based tutorials and Web chats,” Lynch said.
Many colleges and universities accept high school diplomas earned online, but employer acceptance of online college degrees, although improving, still has a ways to go.
A Society for Human Resource Management survey conducted this summer found 49 percent of employers viewed traditional and online degree programs as equally credible, up from 47 percent in 2009. However, just 34 percent of those surveyed viewed job applicants with online degrees as favorably as those with traditional degrees. None said online graduates are more favorable than traditional graduates, and 49 percent still viewed job applicants with an online degree less favorably than those with a traditional degree.
The higher the pay scale, the harder it is to get in the door with an online degree, according to the survey. While only 3 percent of human resource professionals said an online degree was not acceptable for an entry-level applicant, the percentage jumped to 42 percent for an executive-level applicant. Twenty-four percent of human resource professionals said an online degree was not acceptable for a management-level position, and 9 percent said it was unacceptable for a mid-level position.
Many applicants try to avoid the lingering stigma by leaving their online degree status off resumes. Seventeen percent of employers surveyed said job applicants “never” identify the way they earned their degree. Just 1 percent said applicants “always” say whether their degree was earned online or in a physical classroom. The tactic usually doesn’t work; only 15 percent of human resource professionals said there’s no way to guess whether a person’s degree was earned online.
If a graduate worries an online degree will be judged by an employer, Western Colorado Human Resource Association President and Express Employment Professionals Owner Nina Anderson said the best thing to do is add a job-specific professional certification.
Anderson said she has yet to receive a request as a recruiter to seek out only online graduates, but no one has asked for only traditional graduates, either.
“As a recruiter, I’m not hearing any of my clients say they wouldn’t accept someone with an online degree,” she said.
Anderson also recommends picking a school with a good reputation. The Better Business Bureau offers a list of ways to make sure a school is reputable, including a list of legitimate accreditation agencies and warnings to avoid schools that offer little contact with teachers or have prices or timelines that seem too good to be true.
Online degrees usually take about as long to earn as traditional degrees, and schools usually charge between $200 and $700 per credit hour, depending on the class type and degree level.
A degree of any kind may not guarantee employment, but Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate there’s a reason people are trying to earn degrees any way they can. People with a bachelor’s degree earned $1,137 a week on average in 2009, compared to $726 for people with some college education and $626 for people with a high school diploma. And as unemployment skyrocketed between 2007 and 2009, the number of employed people with a bachelor’s degree or better increased by 1 million people, while the number of employed people with some college decreased by 1 million, and the number of employees with only a high school diploma decreased by 3 million.
As for getting into college with an online diploma, Roybal said that hasn’t been a problem for most K-12 program students, who are offered advanced placement and honors courses.