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Enrollment Caps Face Greater Scrutiny

Online education enrollment is growing quickly in K-12 - about 30 percent a year. So some states have tempered that growth with caps on student enrollment, a legislative move that is now facing increasing scrutiny, educators and experts in the field say.

The two most recognized examples for enrollment caps are in Wisconsin and Oregon, which limited student enrollment in recent years. Both states placed temporary caps on full-time state hybrid charter schools to limit fast growth. But they are now studying the programs to determine if caps are still the right approach from both a fiscal and an educational perspective.

E-Learning advocates, such as OLK12, argue that it's going to be harder for states to add caps down the road. Some say that it's a politcal compromise that other states are trying to avoid. Even the U.S. Department of Education has pushed to have enrollment caps removed.

The Education Department's National Educational Technology Plan, released in March 2010, touts e-Learning as one of the key approaches for how schools should use technology to improve educational standards. And the rapid growth of online coursetaking in higher education is frequently cited by experts as a model for the precollegiate world.

That's why enrollment curbs frustrate online learning advocates, who firmly believe that caps limit student choice and can have a detrimental effect on learning. They say that state policy needs to keep up with online learning that can be brought to scale, and not treat it as an add-on.

Agenda for Change

Warming reviews

But public support appears to be shifting. From the earlier example, Wisconsin's charter public schools which incorporated e-Learning, got favorable marks in the February audit done by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau. Overall, parents, high school students, and teachers were satisfied with e-Learning - with approval ratings of over 90 percent from all three groups.

The audit also showed that 95 percent of e-Learning high school students surveyed were satisfied with the availability and amount of contact with their teachers. Also, some experts pointed out that e-Learning proved to be a good value for taxpayers, since 93 percent of the money spent went to teachers and curriculum.

Senator Lehman applauded the results. "The test results were pretty good," he said. "You have higher levels of education in parents, and they're focused on the kids' doing well."

But just as the model of blended learning is pulling the worlds of virtual and brick-and-mortar schools together, new theories within e-Learning are bridging the divide between synchronous and asynchronous instructional methods.

Educators using e-Learning say they once debated whether to deliver courses synchronously, by allowing access to instruction during a given time, or asynchronously, by allowing access anytime and anywhere. Now, they are designing approaches that meld both methods.

The choice to deliver courses synchronously or asynchronously sometimes depends on the subject. In math or physical sciences, where much of the work is based around problem-solving through logical sequences or equations, immediate, synchronous feedback from an instructor is advantageous.

Barriers to Expansion

Many countries are ratcheting up their K-12 e-Learning programs. China has digitized its entire system of K-12 courses and so has Mexico. Turkey's e-Learning capabilities educate 15 million pupils, compared with 1 million in the United States. And similar pushes are under way in Australia, Europe, New Zealand, and South America.

For many U.S. educators and e-Learning advocates, a national - or even global - online learning environment makes the final cut. But going national or global would require some catching up and lifting of policy restrictions currently in place.

The ruse is navigating a U.S. school system diced into some 15,000 districts and 50 states, characterized by distinctive academic requirements and varying policy barriers. The resulting pyramid effect slows down the expansion of e-Learning across state borders, globally, and even outside local districts.

It isn't a stretch to say that the 200 students at Notus Jr. Se. High School live far away from the kinds of services many people take for granted. But even in their rural Idaho school, students' choices of classes include French and Spanish, college-level study, digital photography, and shop class.

That's because Principal Benjamin M. Merrill has invested in a slew of blended courses that students can take as part of their regular school day. These students are no more limited in terms of where they live. They are able to truly enjoy the fruits and have the same quality of education due to e-Learning, and the capabilities that are provided from the World Wide Web.

The National Education Technology Plan