Our current education system speaks to traditional in-class learning. But there are truly many ways to learn. From corporations onboarding new employees with online training, to YouTube how-to videos, to motivated learners taking at-home courses in their spare time, forms of education take on many shapes, and online learning has offered new spaces for students to learn. The area of online education continues to grow and mature, but unfortunately, it still has some antiquated legislation to overcome before alternative education can be a viable and accessible solution for students across our nation's school districts.

Historic Restrictions on Distance Education

Some states still regard online schools as if they were correspondence schools of the 1950's. In reality, the online education space has evolved into something much more sophisticated than the correspondence schools that relied on the postal system. Online learning has become a staple of life as we see it today. When anyone seeks out an answer, we immediately jump online to learn how to solve a problem. Historically, many correspondence schools, (although not all,) had low to no standards or benchmarks to uphold for student outcomes. In response, many states created regulations against correspondence schools in order to protect consumers and discourage the distant learning model, and many of these restrictions are still in place today. The DEAC, a non-profit national educational accreditation agency in the United States was established in response to this lack of standards for correspondence schools1, and today provides accreditation and a benchmark for standards to ensure quality for online schools to follow.

Our current educational system still manages to resist recognizing the massive potential of online learning. However, as with the introduction of many great technological innovations, people resist change at first. Take online banking or online shopping for example; at first, the public resisted the idea of these platforms and questioned their quality and reliability; they were also seen as a threat to the tried-and-true way of doing things. With more time, these online services took hold as people began realizing the efficiency, convenience, and equal or even higher quality experience these services brought to their lives. Similarly, the very first cell phone was not spectacular or practical, but with time and multiple iterations thereafter, disruptive innovation has led to the rapid adoption of smartphone technology.

A Change in Perspective

Despite some initial setbacks, the global E-learning market is rapidly expanding.2,3 Like any other service or technology, online learning delivery formats are being streamlined every day in order to meet the growing public demand for convenient and affordable education.

Today, students are learning all the time - not just while at school. To test the benefits of online learning, the US Department of Education commissioned a study on whether learning online was more effective than the traditional in-class delivery system. The study found online learning to be modestly more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction, but when combined, the study found blended learning to be significantly more effective than either traditional or online alone.4 This finding speaks to the importance of personalized learning, where students have the option to study anytime, at any pace, in any context, as well as particular benefits which might be gained when online classes also offer face-to-face instruction. If a student is excels at math, for example, they might appreciate the opportunity to advance at their own pace through the online setting, but could still benefit from face-to-face instruction in the classroom for a social studies class.

Online or blended education is now a better solution for many students. With these new models, students can go at their own pace without the needless pressure of keeping up with the rest of the class as well as the flexibility it allows for students to juggle multiple time commitments.

With the sophistication of blended, personalized learning, many dynamic opportunities have become available for students and instructors, including 2-way interactive, video, adaptive engines and learning content management systems. Corporations are also harnessing these innovations in education technology through providing online workforce development programs. IBM, for example, offers continued skills development and training through an online learning hub that offers course descriptions, curricula, schedules, and enrollment for thousands of online and classroom courses5. Many corporations also provide online training modules for new employee and continued skills development training for their existing workforce.

Re-Thinking Restrictive Policies for Blended Education

The education system we see today was built through a proficiency-based model. Unfortunately, the proficiency-based model doesn't actually measure what a student can do. Students move on with the rest of the class even if they haven't fully understood a concept, meaning they can graduate with a B average, not having mastered the course content. A competency-based model has a higher standard for student learning, and both pure online learning and a blended model of online and instructor led learning allow for competency-based programs to work. Sadly, many school districts have not kept up with the opportunities offered to improve education through thoughtful use of technology. As the demand increases for school districts to provide more meaningful and purposeful education for students, a greater disconnect grows between new technology and current education policy.

If policymakers are truly interested in offering more educational pathways for all students, then the policies, rules and regulations that restrict flexible alternative learning environments must be challenged.

While states begin to recognize what it's going to take in order to educate the children of an incredibly diverse and modern society6, education providers like Penn Foster will continue innovating, advocating, and providing alternative solutions for today's generation of students -- and wait patiently for the more slow-moving states to catch on and catch up.

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Resources: Photo (1) Distance Education Accrediting Commission (2) The Growth of Online Education Over the Last Decade (3) E-Learning Market Trends and Forecast 2014-2016 Report (4) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (5) Learning and development: A complete learning ecosystem for content, learner and compliance management (6) Distance education task force begins discussions