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Online courses aren't just for home-schoolers anymore

Small schools use them to broaden class offerings; Michigan aims to mandate them.

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If high school student Kelsey Speaks had taken all of her classes at her bricks-and-mortar school, she wouldn't now be three years into her Latin studies. Since junior high, Kelsey has enrolled in eight courses in a virtual classroom through Colorado Online Learning, a state-funded program. The junior at tiny La Veta High School in southern Colorado says taking courses online is a great choice. "It's allowed me to do things I wouldn't otherwise have been able to do," she says.

In addition to letting her take courses (for free) that her school doesn't offer, online learning has made her schedule flexible enough that she can captain the debate team, edit the yearbook, and do volunteer work as well. She also gets to study independently, which she enjoys.

Once considered the domain of home-schooled students, K-12 online learning is a fast-growing option for public school students in rural, urban, and suburban areas. Michigan lawmakers are likely to pass legislation soon that will require high school students to take one course online before they graduate.

"What happened is Michigan beat everyone to the punch," says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the North American Council for Online Learning, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va. Ms. Patrick says more states will follow Michigan's lead as they realize the importance of online literacy in the 21st century.

Enrollment in online programs has been growing for about the past five years, says Bob Blomeyer, a researcher at Midwestern Regional Educational Laboratory (MREL), a nonprofit research center in Naperville, Ill. "The trend line is turning up at a really sharp angle, and that's why this way of teaching and learning needs to be taken a lot more seriously," Mr. Blomeyer says.

As of July 2005, 21 states had K-12 online learning programs, according to a large study by Learning Point Associates, of which MREL is a part. The programs report rapid growth, some by double-digit percentages every year. Utah and Florida have by far the biggest statewide online learning programs, with more than 35,000 students enrolled in Utah and 21,000 in Florida.

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