Online learning for K–12 students is not a trend or a fad. So how does it affect gifted students?

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Kevin D. Besnoy

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of Teaching for High Potential. Research from Mathematica and CREDO have shown disappointing results for online schools, though the studies do not address how well or poorly they serve gifted students.

Over the past twenty years, the world of online learning has exploded with roughly 5 million of the country’s 54 million K–12 students having taken at least one online or virtual class during the 2015–2016 school year. While there are some advantages to virtual schools, we must seek answers to important questions about the type of education our gifted and talented students are receiving in these settings. Given that nearly all of the learning takes place online, what types of digital-personal interactions do our students experience? How do we evaluate a virtual learning environment to determine if it is right for gifted children or programs?

What is Virtual Education?

Effective K–12 online learning environments are comprised of a variety of places, pedagogies, and policies. Unfortunately, educators do not agree as to how best to define each of these elements, and politicians cannot find consensus as to how best to evaluate the return on investment of taxpayers’ dollars. Given the vastness of delivery options, it is important to define a few terms before moving forward. Morgan (2015) defines virtual schools as an accredited school that offers courses in distance education format mostly over the Internet. Within this type of setting, there are three types of delivery formats: Online (online course content >80 percent; remainder face-to- face), Hybrid (online course content 30 percent to 79 percent; remain- der face-to-face), and Web- facilitated (online course content 1 percent  to 29 percent; remainder face-to-face) (Archambault & Crippen, 2009). For purpose of this article, I will examine student readiness issues (a critical element of the Digital Eco- system) related to the online delivery format.

While there is currently no research documenting the number of gifted and talented students enrolled in fully virtual schools or online classes nationwide, during the 2015–2016 school year approximately 16 percent of Alabama’s 45,000 high school students completed at least one online or virtual class (Alabama State Department of Education). It is unclear if this total is in line with other states. What is known, however, is that many gifted students across the nation are turning to virtual schools to expand the traditional high school curriculum and access online classes to satisfy credit advancement, early college enrollment, and dual credit purposes.

In the next five years, there will be greater pressure placed on school systems to utilize virtual schools and online classes to offer its gifted and talented students access to advanced content. It is important to remember, however, that not all online learning environments are appropriate for gifted students and not all gifted students are prepared to enroll in such course work. Much like the Iowa Scales of Acceleration is a tool to help schools make effective decisions regarding a grade-skip, educators must learn how to measure student readiness before settling on an online learning plan.

Characteristics of Successful Online Students

Many schools across the nation, especially those in rural communities, are limited in course offerings for gifted students. Whether it is the lack of funds to hire teachers with specialized expertise or not enough available gifted students in the school to justify a teacher unit for those advanced classes, it can be difficult to offer a complete high school curriculum that meets the needs of our gifted population.   Virtual Schools and online classes can fill this void by offering access to high-quality instruction. Before registering for these classes, school officials must ready the student for the world of online learning. 

Like students in face-to-face classrooms, online students are expected to participate in daily learning activities such as discussion, projects, and group work. Characteristics of successful online students include learners who are: (a) independent learners, (b) computer literate, (c) effective communicators, and (d) interested in online learning. If these characteristics are not present, then school officials will want to implement a plan that prepares students to be successful online learners.

Characteristics of Effective Online Classes or Virtual Schools

There are professional organizations that describe best practices for online learning and virtual schools. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNA- COL) website provides details of these best practices. According to this organization, there are a few general criteria to consider when evaluating online/virtual programs. These include (a) Content; (b) Instructional Design; (c) Student Assessment; (d) Technology; and (e) Course Evaluation and Support. These criteria, however, are general and do not take into consideration the unique needs of our gifted students. For example, just because a class is offered in a virtual setting does not mean that gifted students will be able to move through at an accelerated pace. Additionally, not all classes will allow teachers to differentiate course material to meet individual instructional levels.

Virtual schools and online learning for K–12 students is not a trend or a fad that is going to disappear. This multi-billion-dollar industry is here for the long haul. As such, it is imperative that we hold these programs to the same rigorous standards that we hold traditional face- to-face settings. I would like to start a discussion about the best practices related to virtual schools and gifted students. If you would like to be part of this conversation, please contact me.

Kevin D. Besnoy is the Director, ACCESS Virtual Learning and Associate Director K-12 Programs, College of Continuing Studies at The University of Alabama.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

References

Archambault, L., and Crippen, K. (2009). K-12 distance educators at work: Who’s teaching online across the United States.  Journal of Research on Technology in Education 41(4) 363–91.

Morgan, H. (2015). Online instruction and virtual schools for middle and high school students: Twenty-first century fads or progressive teaching methods for today’s pupils? The Clearing House, 88(3), 72-76.