Charter schools have been one of the most important innovations in public education in the last 20 years. They are the natural home to online learning, which is the next new thing.

Online learning, which goes by the name of  online learning, cyberschools, and a few other terms, is subject to both hype and unfair criticism these days. A recent report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) provides a sober but cautious appraisal of online learning.

The most important takeaway may be that online learning is growing, but everyone — the Minnesota Department of Education, school districts, providers of online learning, and perhaps the general public — has some adjustments to make.

The OLA reports that 1.5 percent of the state’s public school students took an online class in the 2009-2010 year, a number that has surely increased since then. (Part-time enrollment nearly doubled in a recent four-year period; full-time enrollment more than tripled.) And if I read the numbers right, online enrollment grew 60 percent between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school year.

Online learning challenges many established practices and much of the conventional wisdom in schooling. It makes it possible for students to learn anywhere, any time, and at their own pace. Contrast this with the traditional school day marked by a fixed beginning and end, with fixed blocks of time. The interaction between students and teachers occurs primarily through e-mail or online chats, rather than inside a classroom. Rather than speak to a class of 25 students at once, a teacher can speak one-on-one with a student via a video phone call (yes, the phone system of the Jetsons is here!). There’s no need for laggards to hold back students who “get” the material, and no reason for students who are advancing through the material to wait for others. Teachers, for their part, can get daily, computerized feedback on student comprehension, rather than waiting several weeks. The fact that someone in Rochester can teach someone in Roseau obliterates the geographic limits that have bound education.

Yet the use of online classes is still relatively new, so it’s messy, filled with both successes and failures, as everyone adjust and learns to how it all works. Right now, it’s hard to get a good grasp of online learning, since it comes in many flavors. Many different organizations offer it: individual school districts, consortia of districts, and charter schools. In some ways, “online learning” is as meaningful a term as “charter school,” given the variation within each. Some online situations (full-time programs or those that enroll students across district lines) must obtain permission from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), while others (everything else) do not.

The two schools with the largest enrollment during the 2009-2010 year were charter schools: Minnesota Connections Academy and Minnesota Virtual High School. That should not be surprising, given the “let’s be innovative” ethos that fills much of the charter school movement. Districts are free (with MDE approval) to offer classes to students anywhere in the state, but only eight do. Whether that fact is due to the “not invented here” syndrome or a desire to stick with the familiar, it represents a failure to aggressively adapt to new opportunities. (Roughly 80 districts offer online classes only to their own students.)

When you talk about education, money can’t be far behind. Most (77 percent) of district officials interviewed by OLA said they are “concerned” about the fact that if a student from within their districts takes an online class elsewhere, a portion of the the state money allocated for the student goes to the online school. One remedy for that concern, I suggest, is that more districts set up their own statewide programs. Taking off some of the redtape that hamstrings public school administrators could also help these officials respond to the changes brought about by online schools. (As it is, a district still gets 12 percent of the “general education revenue” — plus other streams of money — for students who live within it but take classes elsewhere.)

Another obstacle to the growth of online learning is the collective bargaining process. The OLA report does not say this explicitly, but it does quote one superintendent as saying, “We spend to keep staff at the expense of adequate technology.” And why would they keep staff if they want to spend the money elsewhere?

The report has a handy review of surveys the office did with district officials, online providers, students, parents, parents, and probably a few other types of people.

It’s going to be easy for skeptics (as well as the “give public schools everything they want, now” crowd) to find fault with online schools, based on this report. It says that over the last few years, “full-time online students have become less likely to finish the courses they start” and make “less progress on the MCA-II standardized math tests that students in traditional schools.” But — aside from the question of how useful standardized tests are — the report is filled with plenty of qualifications, warnings, and other notes that make it unwise to condemn online learning as a whole. For one thing, students to enter online programs, especially on a full-time basis, are by definition unsatisfied with traditional schooling–and thus, may have qualifies that will weaken the efficacy of online situations. As I survey the literature from the national standpoint, I can say two things. First, we can find examples of both excellent and poor online schooling. Second, there is some evidence that on balance online learning is good, but the body of research is still rather small.

The auditor’s report MDE for not dragging its feet on approving new applications for full-time programs, which may serve either as a call for more funding for the department or an end to the requirement that full-time programs get MDE’s blessing. It also suggests that MDE give its blessing in the form of a 3-5 year, performance-based permission slip, much as charter schools operate. (MDE’s reaction, as evidenced in this storm the Capitol Report, suggests that the department is a typical bureaucracy that focuses on procedures and process rather than results.)

Now if we could only get the same rule for school districts.

The report, with the rather uncreative title of “Evaluation Report: K-12 Online Learning,” is no page turner, but it is readable. You can find a copy at the OLA website.