Like it or not, we are living in an increasingly virtual world – especially when it comes to education practices both on the K-12 and college levels. While Hispanics have improved in numbers when it comes to Internet use, according to a Pew Center report, Latinos Online: Narrowing the Gap, the word “gap” in the title tells the story. Hispanics still lag behind Whites in Internet use by more than 10 percent. There is some evidence to suggest, Pew notes, that the gap is in part related to English-language proficiency.
Latino Internet Use, by Language Proficiency, 2008 (%)
According to the report by Gretchen Livingston, senior researcher, Kim Parker, senior researcher, Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project, and Susannah Fox, associate director, Pew Internet & American Life Project, Internet use among Latino adults jumped 10 percent, from 54 percent to 64 percent, from 2006 to 2008. This increase was more than double the progress made by Whites (4 percent) and five times that of African-Americans (2 percent ) in the same time period. The gap between Hispanics and Whites in Internet use remains, but this dramatic increase in Internet use by Latinos has reduced the gap to 13 percent.
As the report summary states, “While U.S.-born Latinos experienced a 2 percentage point increase in Internet use from 75 percent in 2006 to 77 percent in 2008, foreign-born Latinos experienced a 12 percentage point increase during the same period, from 40 percent to 52 percent. In 2006, 31 percent of Latinos lacking a high school degree reported ever going online; in 2008, this number was 41 percent. In comparison, Latinos with higher levels of education experienced 3 to 4 percentage point increases in Internet use.”
Hispanic students have to overcome more obstacles than their White counterparts when it comes to accessing the Internet. Home access to high speed Internet is a financial consideration for low income and minority households. The Pew report also shows that the falling prices of high-speed access offered through cable companies, phone companies and satellite operators have reduced that obstacle. The affordability of Internet access has translated into low-income Hispanic households showing the greatest increase in Internet use by Hispanics, more than higher-income Hispanic households. The report states, “Internet use among Latinos residing in households with annual income less than $30,000 increased 17 percentage points from 2006 to 2008. For Latinos in households earning $30,000 to $49,999 annually, Internet use increased 2 percentage points, and for Latinos in households earning $50,000 or more annually, there was no change in Internet use.”
Data points: High School Student Involvement in Online Learning
Beyond available technology, English-reading ability is still the gold standard in accessing the widest range and amount of education material avail-able for American students on the Internet. As such, Hispanics who are skilled in English-reading had the highest percentage of Internet use (81 percent). By comparison, 63 percent of Hispanics who professed to read English “pretty well” were online and 52 percent of Latinos who said they didn’t “read English well” used the Internet. Only 24 percent of Latinos who couldn’t read English were online users. According to Pew, how well or poorly Hispanics read Spanish was not relevant to their Internet use. The difference between those Hispanics who read Spanish very well or pretty well and those who did not read Spanish and used the Internet was only 3 percent or 4 percent.
As expected, younger Hispanics were more inclined to go online than older Hispanics. Of those ages 18 to 34, more than three-fourths were Internet users. That compares to the 65 percent of Hispanics 35 to 49 who fell into that category, 53 percent of Latinos 50 to 64, and 25 percent of older Hispanics 65 and older.
The connection between education and Internet use was evident in Pew’s research figures for 2008 showing that 74 percent of Hispanics with a high school degree were online users, compared to 41 percent of Hispanics with-out one and 93 percent of Hispanic college graduates. With education also came a greater likelihood of a home having a home Internet connection. According to Pew, “Among Internet users, 64 percent of Latinos lacking a high school degree had a home Internet connection in 2008, as compared with 84 percent of Latino high school graduates, and 94 percent of Latino college graduates.”
The education community is taking careful note of the use of home Internet connections of school-age children, seeing it as a tool it can use to create a seamless learning environment from the classroom to the home. Project Tomorrow is a national education nonprofit group based in Irvine, Calif. In its report, Learning in the 21st Century: 2010 Trends Update, Project Tomorrow examined just how widespread online learning has become.
The report summarizes its findings this way: “As the use of computing and networking technologies in schools grows, educators increasingly incorporate online tools and resources into their curricula – some even replace traditional classroom interactions with ‘virtual’ courses that take place entirely online. At the same time, administrators are concerned with helping students develop 21st-century skills while bridging the digital divide between students and adults. Today’s students are ready now to seize and shape the future by leveraging technology tools to implement their personalized vision for 21st-century education. Online learning is at the heart of this momentum as it satisfies the three essential elements of this new student vision: learning that is socially based, untethered and digitally-rich.”
The trend statistics in their report are worth considering. The number of high school students who are taking online classes for school credit has almost doubled from 2008 to 2009. In 2008, 14 percent of high school stu-dents reported taking an online course. In 2009, 27 percent. The increase in demand for online courses has not, however, produced more teachers up to the task of online instruction. There are three times more teachers teaching online classes as there were in 2008, but 26 percent of school administrators felt that these teachers needed more guidance and training to implement an online class more effectively. The pessimism stems, in part, from what aspiring teachers are conveying. Only 4 percent say that they are learning how to teach online courses as part of their instructional methods courses.
According to Project Tomorrow’s report, “Online learning within K-12 education is increasing access and equity by making high-quality courses and highly qualified teachers available to students. Online learning programs offer courses, academic credits and support toward a diploma. They vary in structure, and may be managed by a state, district, university, charter school, not-for-profit, for-profit, or other institution. Thirty states and more than half of the school districts in the United States offer online courses and services, and online learning is growing rapidly, at 30 percent annually. This growth is meeting demand among students, as more than 40 percent of high school and middle school students have expressed interest in taking an online course.”
With all its positive projections, Project Tomorrow also has some sobering reminders of the limitations of a new world economy. The report notes that 25 percent of students who haven’t taken advantage of online courses com-plain that classes weren’t available to them. Indeed, a lack of adequate state funding was cited by 35 percent of school administrators and 40 percent of district administrators as the reason why more online classes were not being offered to students. And where students had to pay for online classes, 16 per-cent of those who weren’t online explained that taking a course was too cost prohibitive for them. Still, there is a strong desire to take online classes. According to Project Tomorrow, 38 percent of high school students who haven’t taken online courses in the past year are interested in doing so in the future. So, the desire is there. It remains to be seen if the funding, direction and will are sufficient to make it happen.
Theory into practice
The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) association based in the Washington, D.C., area with more than 3,200 members. The members represent a diverse cross-section of K-12 education from school districts, charter schools, state education agencies, nonprofit organizations, research institutions, corporate entities and other content and technology providers. An association of this type is further evidence of the burgeoning online education community that has developed over the past few years. Consider these fast facts offered by iNACOL. K-12 online learning is an estimated $507 million market that is growing at an estimated pace of 30 percent annually. Supplemental or full-time online learning opportunities are available in 48 of the 50 states plus Washington, D.C. Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., have statewide full-time online schools, and 38 states have state virtual schools or state-led online initiatives.
The rush is on for educators to create standards to harness the potential and success of online learning. iNACOL is an association that has created a suggested guideline of National Standards for Quality of Online Courses. It is just one of the many guidelines that have been offered or will be offered by academics and education associations. Here’s a representation of what iNACOL suggests for schools “blending” online learning with traditional brick-and-mortar classroom education:
Create clear course content.
Students not only need to know what they will have to do to complete the course requirements, they also should know what they can expect to learn and be able to accomplish by the time the course concludes. The content of the course must also comply with state content standards where applicable. For courses not covered by state standards, other national standards should be consulted, such as those of Advanced Placement, computer science, or technology courses. It is also important to make sure that course content does not violate any copyright standards. This is sometimes a trap those who offer online courses can fall into if the line is crossed between information “aggregation” and copyright infringement. Online “publishing” is still publishing and protected by the same laws as printed works.
Lay out a comprehensive instructional blueprint.
Once content goals are clearly defined, the next step is to design an outline and overview that encourages the kind of independent study that is the hallmark of successful online learning. Begin with a complete overview of the course, describing the objectives and activities of the course as well as the resources required to complete it (i.e, books, videos, access to labs, etc.). Most importantly, the blueprint must contain detailed individual lesson instruction and assignments in a calendar form.
Don’t skimp on technology.
Design the blueprint for the course with as much technical flexibility as possible. Resist rigid “grid systems” that restrict instructors from giving any-thing but cookie-cutter comments on assignments or activities. The software and hardware running an online education community should allow for design changes and upgrades as technology and/or student and instructor needs change and evolve.
Don’t keep students in the dark.
High school students entering the world of online academics – especially minority or low-income students who might be new to the Internet – need consistent feedback. This feedback is not only essential in the area of grading and accessing mastery of subject matter, it is also critical to the transitioning of students used to traditional classroom setting to virtual reality. Part of the feedback is preemptive. It should include tips and strategies for students to achieve the highest possible course success. It is also important for students to be able to access their progress or lack of progress in the course work on demand.
Refine and retool as needed.
One of the wonderful things about online learning is its flexibility. Nothing is carved in stone. Courses can be retooled and changed regularly without the time and effort that it takes to revamp a brick-and-mortar classroom-taught course. Changes to text do not require republishing. Materials used online are always fresh and never dated as printed textbooks can be. But this aspect of online learning is only an asset if the courses offered are peer reviewed and welcome student evaluations on a regular basis so that changes and updates can be made.
Stay on the cutting edge.
Online courses are not the place for 20th-century content or learning and thinking skills. Online courses should emphasize the 21st-century skills of this brave new virtual world. These skills include an emphasis on independent, self-directed learning and global awareness.