Online curricula are increasingly becoming an alternative to textbooks because they offer audio–visual interactivity, diagnostic–prescriptive assessments, web links, and streamlined management capabilities. Used most often by high school students who require distance education, online curricula have potential to help teachers in traditional settings differentiate instruction and engage students. A number of problems must be resolved before that potential is fully reached, including insufficient attention on the teacher’s role, overreliance on traditional modes of instructional delivery, and the responsible use of technology by students.
Keywords: online curricula, K-12, blended learning, distance education, technology
Teaching in Blended K-12 Classrooms: Problems and Potential
Textbooks have been a schoolroom staple since the days of one-room schoolhouses and McGuffey readers; today they are ever present in our classrooms: prescribing, organizing, and presenting curricula in a convenient package. However, in the years to come that may change, as online curricula become feasible replacements for the traditional textbook. Online curricula are complete curricular units that are delivered entirely online. They are often used in virtual schools and distance learning programs. However, in this article, I focus on my experiences using online curricula in blended K-12 classrooms. I spent 3 years working in a school with a one-to-one (1:1) student-to-computer ratio; curricula delivered via the Internet served as our students’ major texts. In the course of those 3 years, I used five different brands of online curricula and informally perused demos from many other providers. This experience, combined with information from the scholarly literature, led me to posit that online curricula have great potential for improving instruction in traditional classrooms; however, that potential is impeded by a number of current weaknesses.
Online Curricula and Blended Learning
Similar to textbooks, online curricula offer learning goals, activities, and assessments that align with state and national standards. Most online curricula have several different purchase plans. Generally, customers “rent” the use of the online curricula for 1 year at a time. They can purchase single courses or—for a price roughly equivalent to the cost of one new textbook—students can purchase access to online curricula in a variety of subject areas. Many providers offer discounts for multiple student subscriptions and price their courses separately as “curriculum only” and “curriculum plus instructor.”
Although online courses in general are experiencing growth, asynchronous high school courses are the most popular type of online curricula. Asynchronous delivery signifies that the students do not participate in “real time” on a prescribed basis; rather, they are given a list of assignments and complete them at their own pace, communicating with the instructor as needed (Setzer & Lewis, 2005). Enrollments in online courses at the K-12 level have been dramatically increasing in the last few years.
By one estimate (Clark, 2001), up to 50,000 K-12 students were expected to take one or more online courses during the 2001–02 school year. By the following academic year, there were 180,000 K-12 enrollments in online courses, according to the Peak study (2002), with more than 1 million enrollments anticipated by school year 2004–05. (Aronson & Timms, 2004, p. 3)
In a 2005 study, only 3% of enrollments were from students in elementary or middle schools, 68% were from high schools, and the remaining 29% were from combined K–12 or ungraded schools (Setzer & Lewis, 2005). More recently, researchers solicited data from school administrators about blended learning—that is, students in traditional schools who were also taking online courses. These results indicated that 14% of students who were taking online courses were in grades K-5, 17% were in middle school, and 69% were in high school (Picciano & Seaman, 2009). This suggests a possible increase in online learning options at the elementary and middle school levels, especially in blended environments. Yet despite the prevalence of blended learning in the elementary and middle grades, there is little research that examines the quality of blended learning experiences (Hemschik, 2009). Much of the literature on K-12 online learning focuses specifically on virtual schools rather than on examining the use of online curriculum in traditional classroom settings (Cavanaugh, Barbour, & Clark, 2009).
The growth of virtual schools has sparked debates in states such as Wisconsin, where public school teachers are concerned that state monies are being diverted to private companies that provide online learning to students. These students, now considered public school students, were often homeschoolers before the advent of online providers (Dillon, 2008). One possible response to this controversy is to introduce blended learning into the public schools. Blended learning allows teachers to determine how the online curricula are used, and gives students the support of a teacher's presence and daily routines, while also having the advantage of allowing for self-pacing, diversifying course offerings, and preparing the student to use online learning in business or college (Fischer & Gorder, 2009). Furthermore, a meta-analysis of online learning studies suggested that educational achievement outcomes are better for blended learning than for either distance learning or face-to-face instruction (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009). Indeed, the average effect size for blended learning was .35 (p < .001), whereas the average effect size for face-to-face and online courses was .14 (p < .05). Blended learning has certain advantages for student achievement, but it also has potential pitfalls for teachers using online curricula in their classrooms.