Admissions & Student Aid

The Next Admissions Challenge: Evaluating Online Education

September 27, 2009

Colleges pay admissions officials to predict the future, and that future is likely to include a revolution in the way many high-school students learn. As attendees of the National Association for College Admission Counseling heard here last week, online education is spreading rapidly among secondary schools, a trend that raises many questions for admissions officials.

On Friday, Brian Lekander, program manager for Star Schools, a distance-education initiative in the U.S. Education Department's Office of Innovation and Improvement, described the rise of virtual learning in elementary and secondary schools. Thirty-two states have virtual-school programs, and 70 percent of all school districts offer online and distance-learning programs, according to the Education Department. In 2008, two million secondary students were enrolled in online-learning programs or in "blended" programs, which include face-to-face and online instruction. In 2000, that enrollment was only 50,000 students.

"It's going to drastically change over time what classroom education looks like," Mr. Lekander said.

It will also pose a challenge to admissions officials, who will need to develop ways of evaluating online course work. After all, over time admissions officials have become familiar with the high schools that many of their applicants attend. Knowing what programs a high school offers and what kinds of students it serves provides crucial context for weighevaluating applicants' preparation. But the fast-increasing array of virtual programs poses a challenge. As a leader of one such program, Jan Keating, said at the conference: "How would you know when you see an online course on a transcript that it's a high-quality program?"

Ms. Keating is headmaster of the Education for Gifted Youth Online High School at Stanford University, which offers computer-based distance-learning courses to high-achieving students. More than 50,000 students from 35 countries have taken courses through the program. To help admissions officials understand how to assess the quality of online programs, Ms. Keating described what questions they should ask.

Does the program have a clear mission? What are the educational backgrounds of its instructors? Do the instructors ever have face time with students? Can the program's organizers provide information about student outcomes? And is it fully accredited?

Beyond evaluating curricula, admissions officials would also want to understand how students interact in online-learning programs. As David Mabe, assistant dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College, asked, "How do virtual high schools foster a sense of community?"

Ms. Keating described the social interactions of the students in her program. A lack of face-to-face contact, she said, does not prevent students from connecting intellectually—and it may have some key benefits: "You lose the physicality and awkwardness that occurs in high school."

Zach Chaffin, a former student in Stanford's online high school, described how the program had allowed him to interact with students from different places, who had different viewpoints, which prepared him for campus life. While studying in California, he became best friends with a fellow student in Hong Kong. "There actually was a totally legitimate social environment," he said.

Mr. Chaffin, now a sophomore at the Johns Hopkins University, said that online schooling requires a lot of "self-motivation," especially because it gives students more free time than they would have in a traditional high school. "In that sense, now that I'm in college," he said, "it was a really good experience."