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Digital Boomtown: Online Learning Is on the Rise

A new report shows that the number of middle and high school students learning online has tripled over the past three years.

For today's middle and high school students, being online is nothing new—but there's a revolution happening when it comes to teens actually using the internet to learn. According to the just-released Learning in the 21st Century 2011 Trends report, the number of middle and high school students learning online is on the upswing and more than 40 percent of students now say online classes are an essential part of their school experience.

The annual survey, produced by education nonprofit Project Tomorrow and Blackboard polled almost 400,000 students, teachers, and administrators from a pretty representative mix of urban, suburban, and rural schools. One half of the roughly 300,000 students who responded come from low-income backgrounds and one third of the schools they attend are majority minority campuses.

So, how significant is the increase in online learning? In 2008 only 9 percent of middle school students and 10 percent of high school students took online classes at school. But, by 2010, 19 percent of middle school students and 30 percent of high school students were doing so. Some of the growth is probably due to the increased availability of the internet in schools. After all, if a school doesn't have a broadband connection, kids can't get online to access learning opportunities.

Now that the internet is common in schools, both teachers and students recognize that online learning provides an easy opportunity to review and practice academic concepts. Students also said they find online learning engaging and they like how personalized it can be. They reported that they liked being "in control of my own learning" and being able to "work at my own pace." And, for busy seniors, 54 percent say online classes better fit their schedule.

Although it's tempting to think that brick-and-mortar K-12 schools—and the hardworking teachers in them—are going to disappear, that's probably not going to happen anytime soon. In 2009, only four percent of middle and high schoolers learned solely from online programs and in 2010, only six percent were doing so.

The real growth in online learning is in so-called blended classes that combine a classroom teacher with online technology. In 2009, only 14 percent of students had blended classes but in 2010, only a year later, almost twice as many, 27 percent had blended classes. That makes sense since students still need teachers to facilitate and guide their learning. After all, as engaging as online learning may be, there are still some experiences a digital program simply can't provide.

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