Online learning keeps rising among state’s K-12 students

Online learning for Washington’s public school kids is here to stay.

That’s according to a report from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which found that the number of students enrolled in online classes increased by 1,440 students from the 2021-2022 school year to the 2022-2023 school year.

There were 54,380 students in Washington’s public schools enrolled in online classes in the last school year. That’s nearly 5 percent of all Washington public school students.

While that represents a slight dip from online enrollment during the 2020-2021 school year, it’s still a massive leap from enrollment before the pandemic: 34,307 students were learning virtually during the 2019-2020 school year.

“This may be the foundation for the biggest academic disruption in a long time,” Joy Lynn Egbert, a professor of education technology at Washington State University, said in an email.

While older students are more likely to engage in virtual learning, the state reports that thousands of young students — even kindergarteners — are enrolled in online courses.

The greatest change in this year’s online enrollment demographics is the number of students who identified as “Gender X,” the option given to students who did not want to identify as either male or female. During the 2021-2022 school year, only about 5 percent of students identifying as Gender X overall in schools statewide were online learners. That percentage jumped to about 14 percent during the 2022-2023 school year — or just fewer than 700 students.

The rise here, the report notes, “may be related to the small size of this group, but it also may reflect on where these students feel safe and feel safe identifying their gender as X.”

Online learning advocates often tout virtual classes as a safe alternative for LGBTQ+ students who may experience bullying at school. But Egbert said schools should focus on being more welcoming to LGBTQ+ students — instead of pushing them to choose a virtual option.

“[Virtual learning] can be a good thing for some of our students, but it has a way to go to be the same engaging, interesting and authentic experience that face-to-face learning can be and often is,” Egbert said.

Students who are learning English were the least likely to participate in online learning. Egbert, who also studies multilingual learning, said that reflects how difficult it is to learn a language and other content in a virtual classroom.

Online courses continue to have lower completion rates than traditional courses, except for students who identified as Gender X. The report suggests the lower completion rates could be attributed to students choosing online learning because they struggle in traditional settings or have needs that create barriers to learning.

“For example, a student who is struggling with anxiety may choose to enroll in online learning. Online learning doesn’t make the anxiety they are experiencing go away and it will continue to affect their success, but it does allow them to engage more consistently,” the report says.

Egbert said that while she agrees some students are served better with online learning, teachers simply “aren’t as good at online as they are in classrooms,” because they often find it more difficult to help every student and make sure students are getting what they need.

“We always say that ‘it takes a village,’ but in the case of completely online learning, it really does. Parents can’t leave it all up to teachers anymore,” Egbert said.

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Grace Deng writes for the Washington State Standard (https://washingtonstatestandard.com), an independent, nonprofit news organization that produces original reporting on policy and politics.

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