Why K-12 Adoption of OL Will Lag

Why K-12 Adoption of OL Will Lag


Someone recently asked me why I thought that full scale online learning will be reached for higher ed ~10 years before K-12. Here's my response...

My upcoming book The Seven Futures of American Education has a section which addresses this question. Basically, here's my take on it -- there are several possible reasons this will happen:

1) (Relative) absence of an unserved audience -- Online learning got its foothold in US higher education by serving previously neglected and underserved populations such as nontraditional and lifelong learners. K-12 education has no comparably large unserved audience because it is compulsory; almost all the students who could be served by online education are already in school. The available opportunities (e.g., homeschoolers, credit recovery, et al.) are smaller in scope and will take a longer time to develop.

2) K-12 is more cautious -- School districts have implemented online learning more cautiously than colleges and universities have because K-12 education has more stakeholder groups to contend with. Principals, school boards, and especially parents are also often more deeply involved in the process, which produces more negotiation among the interested parties, which requires greater caution.

3) Greater scrutiny -- the mainstream media and the general public pay much greater attention to K-12 education, so K-12 online education is unlikely to have the luxury of growing under the radar the way that online higher education did. The MSM and general public have also become much more aware of online learning thanks to its adoption in higher education. So the adoption of online K-12 education will be scrutinized by an even larger and often less knowledgeable audience.

4) Greater complexity - Trying to satisfy a larger number of more involved stakeholders also adds complexity to the process, as does having to align other important K-12 educational functions such as custodial care and socialization with the implementation of online learning.

5) More skepticism -- To some extent, K-12 online education is still somewhat stuck in the “option of last resort” phase of adoption. Even many advocates of K-12 online education believe that classroom education is better but that online education is adequate when a classroom option is not available. In addition, the currently available evidence of K-12 OL effectiveness is “promising" but still slim, at least in terms of defining effectiveness in comparison to the traditional classroom.

The other main reason, of course, is simple numbers: the current adoption rate of OL in US K-12 education is still quite small -- around 1.5 - 3 percent depending on what estimates you use. So it will take some time before adoption rates can compound to the 30+ percent level (= # of students who take an online course in a given academic year) currently seen in higher education.

The flip side of this is that the numbers will grow larger more quickly in K-12 education since there are so many more students. So we may see ten million K-12 OL students before we see that number in higher education. However, it will still represent a much smaller proportion of the total population.

This raises the question, what is the best way to measure "full scale" adoption? I believe that percentage of adopters is a better "diffusion of innovation" measure. From a marketing perspective, however, commercial interests may be far more interested in the numerical count because K-12 is a much bigger market than higher ed, numerically speaking...

SK/JS on the Web

Search