LANSING - An increase in online K-12 classes is bringing more equal education opportunities to students across the state, experts say.
Online courses allow students to take classes that may not be offered at their local schools, said Punya Mishra, a professor in education technology at Michigan State University.
"You don't have to be at a certain place at a certain time," he said. "It's a way to democratize education."
A student in the Upper Peninsula who wants to take an advanced French or algebra course might not find a teacher for that class in his or her school, Mishra said. But the student could take that course online.
The state now requires all high school students to have an "online learning experience" to graduate. That shows schools that online experiences are an acceptable way to deliver information to their students, said Bruce Umpstead, director of the Office of Education Technology and Data Coordination at the Department of Education (MDE).
Students need 20 hours of "online engagement" from grades 6 to 12, Umpstead said. That could be satisfied with one online class or multiple online experiences that teachers integrate into their classes.
Research suggests that students who receive a combination of online and face-to-face classroom experiences perform better in the classroom than students who receive only face-to-face experiences, Umpstead said.
"Teachers who integrate their classrooms with technology have higher engagement," he said. "Engaging programs bring authentic learning."
Online courses enable students to "learn in the same environment in which they live," Umpstead said. "It allows for broad collaboration, for anywhere learning."
They also allow for instantaneous feedback between teacher and student, which can help at-risk students who may be thinking of dropping out, he added.
In Grand Rapids, high school students can choose elective and core classes either completely online or in hybrid settings that combine online and traditional styles, said John Helmholdt, director of communications for Grand Rapids Public Schools.
"We're kind of a step ahead of the online graduation requirement," Helmholdt said.
Last year, Grand Rapids opened new facilities called "centers of innovation." Ninth-grade students at the centers who took core classes entirely online outperformed 9th graders in traditional classrooms, he said.
A special education teacher at one center, the Academy for Design and Construction, reported more progress by her students who take online rather than traditional courses, Helmholdt said, in part, because of the relationship-building between student and teacher.
Students must meet specific performance standards to reach more advanced levels, Helmholdt said. Teachers can monitor their progress and group them together more effectively to determine what each student needs.
Since most tests and homework assignments are embedded in the software programs, teachers have more time to interact directly with students rather than using that time to grade work or complete paperwork, he said.
Jamey Fitzpatrick, president of Michigan Virtual University, said, "It fosters a different level of communication. Online instructors tell us that they frequently get to know their virtual students better" than their face-to-face ones.
Michigan Virtual University is a nonprofit organization that offers online classes and resources.
Fitzpatrick said online courses can be especially helpful to students who are unable to attend school because of health problems.
One of the organization's students was a cancer patient who was couldn't go to school because of chemotherapy but wanted to continue her education during treatment, he said. For students with anxiety disorders, face-to-face interactions are difficult, so some prefer online classes.
In another case, a Detroit-area student competed on the U.S. Olympics Team in figure skating and took about 20 classes online because competitions often took her away from Michigan, Fitzpatrick said.
MDE's Umpstead said some research suggests that about 25 to 50 percent of K-12 education should be online over the next 10 years because of the benefits of such learning.
If that were to happen, schools may need to provide computers with broadband access to homes without computers or Internet access, Umpstead said. That's because Michigan requires K-12 schools to provide educational resources at no cost, such as textbooks.
"Computers and broadband access become equivalent to the paper and pencil," he said.
MSU's Mishra said online education "needs to be designed and orchestrated properly" to be effective.
"Many people just take basic face-to-face stuff and put it online," he said. Simply posting a quiz or videotaping a lecture and posting it doesn't live up to the potential of the medium or provide the engaging experiences students need.
Fitzpatrick said the real benefit of online courses is that they teach young people to learn through technology, which is how students need to learn in college or at work.
"It really comes down to 21st century learning skills," he said.
Grand Rapids' Helmholdt said, "What's great about online is it really provides multiple opportunities to learn about a particular subject."
Students can watch a lecture, or go to websites with photos, videos, online books or with translation capabilities for students learning English as a second language, he said.
"This really is the future of education," he said.