Enrollment in K-12 online courses nearly doubled in 2 years in Minnesota, but quality varies widely.
Jack Colombo, 6, hangs a coloring of a Viking ship from online history studies on the family bulletin board while mom Tami and sister Grace, 8, look on and older brother Jake, 13, works on an online physical science assignment.
A fast-growing number of Minnesota K-12 students are migrating from the classroom to a home computer, in what some experts say is the vanguard of an online education revolution that's altering how and where many students learn.
Enrollment in full- and part-time public online programs has nearly doubled in a two-year period -- going from 4,500 to 8,000 students last year, about 1 percent of the state's student body.
Advocates say online courses reach students for whom classrooms can be social or logistical minefields: teen moms, elite athletes, bully victims. Many previously home-schooled students now take courses online.
But while some Minnesota online schools tout impressive test scores, many fall short of statewide performance levels in reading, science and especially math. Many educators say that's because struggling students often turn to online options. Others question the rigor of some online programs.
"We've seen several cases where students ... earn a whole bunch of credits so fast that it's inconceivable," said Charlie Kyte, head of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. He said virtual learning can be valuable, but the quality varies widely.
Minnesota has at least 24 certified public online K-12 programs. Many full-time programs call themselves schools or academies. Some provide supplemental course work and call themselves online consortia, networks or projects. The state also has online private schools and individual courses offered by school districts.
Nationwide, online education is a $300 million industry growing 30 percent a year, estimates the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).
"As far as giving students choice for online opportunities, Minnesota is one of the best," said Susan Patrick, president of iNACOL. She said it's one of the few states in which per-pupil state funding migrates with students to both individual online courses and full-time programs.
Stillwater's Colombo family once planned to home-school but opted for online learning. The courses, like those in traditional public schools, are taxpayer funded.
One day last month, Jack, 6, and Grace, 8, gazed at a Viking ship on a computer. "The Vikings were ... masters of the water and wolves of the sea," their mom, Tami, read, adding: "Now do you understand why that's a good name for our football team?" Jack said, "Yeah, they're pretty mean guys."
Their school, Minnesota Virtual Academy, is run by the Houston, Minn., school district. It gets curricula from K-12 Inc., a publicly traded company that netted more than $12 million last school year, serving almost 55,000 students.
Another example, Minnesota Virtual High School, is a partnership between Minnesota Transitions Charter School and the for-profit Advanced Academics of Oklahoma, where many of the teachers live.
Traditional high schools are offering more online courses taught by their own teachers. To curb overcrowding, Prior Lake High School will offer AP Human Geography online this fall, plus several partially online courses.
Put to the test
State test results from online schools are all over the map. Some beat statewide performance; many fall far below. Only 3 percent of students were proficient in math last year at Insight School of Minnesota, and only 17 percent at Wolf Creek Distance Learning Center.
"Eighty-five percent of our kids are at risk," said Tracy Quarnstrom, Wolf Creek's director. "... We run about 20 percent teen parents, and we have students coming out of [drug treatment]. ... Still, we need to prove that we can get kids to the point where they need to be."
The state Department of Education evaluates programs and assures that they meet state standards. Instruction must be "assembled and delivered" by a Minnesota-licensed teacher, and teachers can't have more than 40 students per course. The department says online education helps prepare students for a fast-paced, tech-savvy world.
A 2009 report, "Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning," warned that administrators are under "immense pressure'' to offer "any online option." The report, whose sponsors included several online learning companies, said, "It is easy for low-quality, low-cost providers to say that they meet state content standards and teacher certifications."
The concern is greater for individually offered courses rather than full-time schools, said John Watson, one of the authors.
Online lessons, like traditional ones, should take time, Kyte said. Otherwise, students don't absorb material, and "they're going to come up horribly short" when tested, he said
But Cindy Erdal of Eden Prairie said her children work faster online than in crowded classrooms with their distractions. Her daughters, Claire, 16, and Samantha, 17, estimate that they spend two hours a day on lessons from Minnesota Virtual High School.
Both say they're on track to graduate early -- a big change for Samantha, who said she was in danger of having to repeat her senior year at Minnetonka High because of attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities.
Losing teacher contact
Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers' union, while supportive of quality online education, is concerned about what students might lose -- relationships that help them learn and grow, said president Tom Dooher.
"If you think about favorite teachers ... it's about the relationship they developed with you," he said.
Face-time varies widely. Some online students get little; others regularly attend field trips, tutoring sessions or other meet-ups that some schools organize.
The Charbonneau family of Prior Lake likes having an online option, but mom Lorie Charbonneau says it's not for everyone.
Daughter Kate, 16, a figure skater who travels frequently to compete, is in MTS Minnesota Connections Academy, an online school. Her two younger siblings go to a traditional school.
"I have three children that are very different," Charbonneau said, adding that her younger daughter needs more contact with peers, and "my son would not do any work if I had to be the one pushing him."
Recognizing that more families want all the choices, the University of Minnesota now trains future teachers to give lessons online.