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Digital Learning

The Challenges of Borderless Education

Michael E. Milakovich and Jean-Marc Wise

Today quality of education hinges less on mode of instruction or institutional reputation than on the commitment of individual administrators and instructors to understand and apply digital learning. Digital Learning reveals the technologies behind successful implementation of online learning and teaching, and introduces the most important concepts and relationships in plain language. Readers are also provided with a glossary of key terms and a selection of resources.
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Chapter 8: Online learning in K-12 schools

Michael E. Milakovich and Jean-Marc Wise

This chapter examines the application of digital learning for children and adolescents and discusses how many can benefit from the wider use of instructional technology at the primary and secondary (K-12) school levels in the United States. The presence of younger students in online schooling has been growing steadily as parents choose to enroll their children in online learning programs for a multitude of reasons. In contrast to traditional in-class methods, virtual learning reinforces studying at home, encourages internet engagement in a safe environment, and promotes self-direction and personalized learning. Moreover, since this trend has emerged, scholars, parents, media, and experts in this field have developed strong opinions about the success of this alternative to the traditional classroom school.

The traditional classroom, invented over 200 years ago in the Prussian state of northern Germany, is ill-equipped to accommodate the needs of twenty-first-century students for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being its inability to keep up with the fast-paced learning style of the Internet Generation. Many educators debate issues such as: What is the proper balance between home environment, classroom, and internet connected devices? At what age should children be exposed to the inherent dangers of the internet? Will children be socialized as well in the isolated internet environment? Advocates admit that it is very challenging to measure the differences in performance between children enrolled in accredited online K-12 schools versus those being taught in traditional elementary and secondary schools, and while controlled studies continue to be conducted and published, the bulk of the research currently available tends to focus on the inclusion of technology (such as tablets and gaming software designed to promote learning) in physical classrooms, rather than on online learning opportunities.1. Researchers are even delving into the issues associated with low socio-economic and immigrant backgrounds to identify ways to apply technology to societal challenges.2.

It is reasonable to assume that online courses are more suitable for college and graduate-level students rather than elementary school students because of students’ ages, self-discipline, and maturity. Nonetheless, online K-12 courses are being developed for children and adolescents who are obviously still in the process of developing their personalities and building self-esteem (Domingo et al., 2016). The social learning aspect is and always will be a valid purpose for mandatory education. The rapidly developing discipline of social emotional learning (SEL) is studying the use of online K-12 courses for children and adolescents and is still in the developmental phases of finding better ways to teach motivation and social skills (Pekrun and Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2014).

Online courses do not yet provide a perfect and secure alternative to traditional supervision offered by brick-and-mortar schools; they have yet to alleviate the many concerns of parents, ranging from the possibility that children may not develop important social skills to the reality that the “digital divide” does not provide equal learning opportunities for all children. Many public schools are increasingly segregated by income and race, and bullying is a rampant problem in all types of schools. These concerns should and will worry parents, especially those used to more involvement with schools through the parent–teacher–student (PTS) associations, teacher conferences, and direct contact with their children’s teachers. In comparison to traditional learning, online learning provides flexible course options and limits the possibility that children are exposed to aggressive behavior and/or are learning only in segregated schools.

The debate over online versus traditional schools has focused on concerns that children may not receive the same level of instruction in an isolated environment inherent to the internet-connected devices. Moreover, parents are concerned that virtual instructors are not truly competent and that good teachers may avoid online teaching for fear of losing their full-time jobs. This is especially troublesome for parents actively engaged in supporting their children’s education. These concerns are exacerbated by the persistence of the digital divide and the fact that online learning is not always a low-cost alternative if parents are looking for excellence. Parents face difficult choices: studying without computers may disadvantage a child in the long term, but studying entirely online at home without the social interaction common in a classroom may have long-term negative consequences on emotional development, motivation, and socialization.


Advocates of virtual learning in primary grades argue that children do not need to go to a physical place to learn because they are already surrounded by connected devices and the entire K-12 curriculum is available online. While some argue that virtual learning has become a negative symbol of the high-tech era, others suggest that the education sector has been restored by online learning over the last 20 years (Lukman and Krajnc, 2012). Opponents maintain that children need professional orientation as a guide that can inspire them in class, better known as a “teacher.” Whether or not the leadership and motivational role of teachers can be replicated online remains an unanswered question.

Psychological Ramifications of Virtual Learning

In the past, online learning was considered unsuitable for younger pre-adolescent children, who need someone to guide them through the learning process because they have not yet learned how to learn. Virtual learning is mainly used for high school and college-level classes where students are more directed learners and focused on career and family responsibilities. Another application is for foreign language classes where schools can no longer afford a full-time language teacher. The popularity and success of learning software such as Rosetta Stone and Babbel have made it easier for students to engage in foreign language courses via connected devices. But are these types of courses even feasible at the elementary age? Most people would answer “No,” simply because students at this level have not yet learned how to be a student and need the guidance of teachers. Some professionals have other reasons for saying it will not work, most of the time regarding the “social aspect” of online learning. To convert courses for younger learners, it is important to understand the social development of children at such a young age.

Psychiatrist Erik Erikson, in collaboration with his wife Joan Erikson, developed a typology of personality development over eight stages from infancy to maturity (Erikson and Erikson, 1998). Individuals must reach each level before successfully moving to the next stage, otherwise further development can be adversely affected. The first three stages are developed at early ages including trust, sense of self, and purpose. The fourth stage is concentrated in the schooling years, where children learn to master “relating to peers according to rules,” teamwork, and schoolwork. At these ages the child is learning to self-motivate and developing self-disciplinary skills in their homework. Other forms of social development occur at early ages as well, for instance from the ages of six to eight, children develop an interest in friendship and how peers view them. They become competitive in sports and develop a sense of self in terms of confidence. In the following two years, children start to differentiate between their submissive and dominant personalities, sometimes resulting in bullying behavior.

Social Interactivity

For reasons stated above, many professionals, teachers, and parents are hesitant to involve their children in immersive online courses, fearing that overuse of technology may hinder children’s abilities to grow emotionally and interact socially. Plainly, there must be a balance between technology and social learning. Many educators share the belief that technology is a useful resource, but some are abusing it as a lazy attempt at teaching. On the other hand, Marc Prensky advocates game-based learning and encourages parents to become involved with their children in games such as World of Warcraft that create social and virtual environments online: “Kids learn more positively, useful things for their future from their video games than they learn in school” (Prensky, 2006: 4). He claims children are learning leadership skills (managing guilds in video game World of Warcraft), hand–eye coordination (first-person shooter games or Wii Fitness), choices between right and wrong (Fable) and their consequences, as well as how to barter and trade with people in real-life scenarios (EverQuest). Prensky details five “levels of learning” in video games (Prensky, 2006: Chapter 8). “How” to do things (such as how to build a theme park), “what” to do in a game (that is, the rules); “why” you choose to follow the rules or disobey them, and the resulting strategies and consequences learned; “where” develops cultural learning; and the “whether” stage is that in which they learn to make value-based, moral decisions and experiment without the harsh consequences of real life (Prensky, 2006: 69). Prensky also gives examples of teachers who have used game-based learning in the classroom with great success.

The number of online K-12 courses will continue to increase and their quality will continue to improve by identifying strengths and weaknesses of delivery methods to build the best model for children. Institutionally based digital education requires hardware and software to make communication possible, but also suggests that learners and teachers can be geographically separated from each other. The website outlines guidelines for how K-12 online education works:

1. delivers online lessons along with traditional materials such as textbooks, CDs, and videos that complement interactive online learning.

2.  Each course is customized to be in harmony with a child’s strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles and aptitudes.

3.  The parents become learning coaches and responsible for the progress of their own children through the daily lessons in the first eight years (K-8). Parents also help and support their children to stay on task through the last four years of the program.

4.  Although most online K-12 schools follow most of these guidelines, they are not all the same. For example, there are substantial differences between private, public, and charter online schools.

The following are the five types of K-12 public virtual education, as classified by the North Central Regional Education Laboratory: statewide supplemental programs, district-level supplemental programs, single-district cyber schools, multidistrict cyber schools, and cyber charter schools.


One of the valid concerns about virtual learning is that children may not develop social skills to grow in a community atmosphere, as online learning is inherently isolated from face-to-face interaction. If children are not experiencing normal childhood interactions, such as making friends in the classroom and in the playground, they may not learn skills necessary to deal with differences between themselves and other students, or become accustomed to taking instruction from teachers. Human beings are naturally social: an individual is born in a social environment, grows up in a family, lives in society accepting its rules, learns in communities, and works in an organization. The isolation that is inherent to online schooling may cause students to miss out on acquiring those necessary social skills to live in an organized society. Nevertheless, online K-12 schools are changing this stereotype by adding more social events and developing more interactive motivational software connecting students and teachers (see Chapter 11). These efforts and improvements are not sufficiently proven yet to fully substitute for the social relations that children experience in brick-and-mortar schools (Carnahan, 2012). Nonetheless, social communications in general are changing with advancements in personal technology.

Younger generations are born into a world where i-devices are commonplace. They communicate with friends and family face-to-face, learn basic skills on laptops, and are likely in the future to work with others from remote locations via the internet. I-Gens demand learning at a faster speed because the traditional classroom no longer suits their preferred methods of social interaction and communication.


IBM’s KidSmart Early Learning Program uses colorful computer workstations to help students engage in mathematics, science, and languages. The use of computer games acts as a supplement for preschool learning environments. Students are encouraged to use computers at an earlier age, to prepare them for the increased usage of advanced technology in the later years of schooling. KidSmart also comes with a companion website for teachers and parents to help integrate computer technology into their classrooms and homes. Not only do they focus on the material used for teaching, but they also emphasize social skills in sharing information and computers between classmates. KidSmart is mostly used in countries where children do not readily have access to computers. IBM, through KidSmart programs across 60 countries, has invested more than $106 million, which includes the donation of 45000 KidSmart learning centers to schools in need. A committee selects these schools based on need and merit. Teachers are trained to use the “Young Explorer” learning centers and can further explore their usage on the KidSmart website, which is available in nine languages.

Bank Street College of Education studied Kidsmart and found the program helped teachers to integrate technology into their curriculum. It also found that 99 percent of the children who used KidSmart were either comfortable or very comfortable using computers; a significant increase compared to when they were not using the KidSmart centers.3.

IBM donates their computers to carefully selected schools and sets up educational software on all existing computers for free. The Cornell Computer Reuse Association (CCRA) gathers old computers and refurbishes them to send off to outdated schools in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Caribbean and many others. Created in 2006, the small group of volunteer students at Cornell fixes up old computers and computer parts to send to volunteer organizations across the world. The computers are completely wiped of previous memory and are built for a new user. They are donated to community centers, schools, and orphanages.

The use of the Peace Corps to teach kids in underserved areas is a vast resource for helping to close the digital divide that has yet to be utilized. Most Peace Corps volunteers are college-aged students. With their extensive knowledge of the internet and technological domain, they are positioned to offer guidance for children in conjunction with these programs which offer laptop and internet access. Peace Corps volunteers are already sent to rural areas for teaching in schools. However, they are concentrated in reading, writing, and arithmetic. These basic teaching components could be taught through the use of the internet and computers, and if internet access is not available, they could use computer programs and games used in elementary schools in the United States, such as Math Blaster or Oregon Trail.

Kid’s Learning Adventure

Another local example of integrated virtual learning is based in Miami, Florida. Kid’s Learning Adventure (KLA) is a charter preschool and kindergarten where children are encouraged to learn through an approach based on a city in Italy, Reggio Emilia. KLA schools push a “community to raise a child” method of learning where parents are actively involved in their children’s education. Their use of technology includes documentation of their student’s activities through cameras and computers to monitor how the children are developing. This way, parents at home can monitor their children’s growth and children can return in subsequent years to see how they have changed. This technology is in addition to the computer programs used to help children learn simple lessons such as colors, matching, and speaking through computer games. KLA successfully implements all types of technology to further their students’ education while at the same time implementing a method that involves teacher–student co-learning environments. Concerned teachers are also researchers who continuously learn from their students. In this school, the collaboration of charter school teaching and innovative technologies has resulted in one of the best preschools in the world.4.

Developing countries are on their way to successfully providing citizens with the tools to learn in the twenty-first century, despite the persistence of a damaging digital divide. In short, it is paradoxical that while the United States offers the possibility to do the entire K-12 curriculum virtually without providing laptops to public schools, some countries in South America provide laptops to students without providing online schools.

One Laptop Per Child

The innovative approach of One Laptop Per Child has realized dreams for creating affordable laptops for children in need. Each laptop only costs about $100 to make and has wireless capabilities that help children in rural areas gain access to the internet through satellite downlinks. The problem of electrical power is solved through the computer’s energy efficiency and the ability to manually power up the laptop through a crank, or to use solar power, when unable to access a power source. These laptops are mass produced under the XO brand name so every child in a school can have one to keep and to take home, to connect to the internet, communicate with their classmates, and to learn from courses and teachers in remote locations. For schools to get the laptops, they must comply with the “one laptop per child” rule, and each child must be allowed to take their laptop home. The Sugar interface is free and open software that allows children to connect with their fellow students in their neighborhood and schools, to make new friends, and to work together on activities. These activities include uploading pictures of their environments, working together on writing a story, keeping journal entries of activities, and listening to and creating music and art pieces. To date, the XO laptop has reached 2 million children in 31 countries, mostly in Latin America and Africa.

In contrast to the United States, which promotes online learning without offering equal opportunity and access to online tools, other parts of the world make narrowing the digital divide a priority. In South American countries such as Argentina, Venezuela, and Uruguay, distributing laptops has become a state policy in order to narrow the digital divide. For example, Uruguay and Venezuela provide a laptop to every primary school child in public education, while Argentina provides laptops to all secondary students, plus one laptop for every four students in elementary schools (Valente, 2012).

Online homeschooling can be a useful tool for students in agriculturally sustained communities and for countries where it is difficult for girls to attend school due to cultural restrictions. The curiosity and determination to learn is there, and armed with a laptop, internet access, and programs for learning, virtual learning supports developing nations interested in achieving success in a global world. For those children who are homeschooled, the option for One Laptop Per Child is not available, representing a barrier to inclusion. Even without internet access, these children could learn through programs such as Rosetta Stone, Leapfrog, and others that guide students step by step through the learning process and only require an old computer with a CD-ROM drive. While the Cornell Computer Reuse Association is helping with this, rebuilding computers takes time that the One Laptop Per Child program has sidestepped by mass manufacturing. A similar program for homeschooled children needs to be developed, but so far has not been.

Academic Honesty and Integrity

Virtual learning schools have a unique advantage when compared to traditional schooling: they allow students to work at their own pace. Naturally, all kids in a classroom are different from each other in terms of abilities, learning skills, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, which makes online school an option for students that do not conform to normal teaching strategies. As discussed previously, many virtual schools aim to placate fears over isolation by promoting student interaction and mutual understanding. Both introverted and extroverted students have different ways to participate in and contribute to the learning experience, which in turn results in a different pace in the class. The virtual world motivates shy students to work hard and compete with peers by participating in discussions while avoiding face-to-face contact, and by making accommodations for outgoing students including chat boxes, video-conferencing, and live teacher–class interactive sessions (Carnahan, 2012). Furthermore, a study demonstrated that online students develop their knowledge and show enthusiasm about doing virtual assignments at about the same rate as their in-class counterparts (O’Connor, 2011). Additionally, research has shown that there is no significant difference in terms of students’ achievement and psychological and mental development between those enrolled in an online school and those who attend a brick-and-mortar school (Carnahan, 2012). Hence, although each student works at their own pace in virtual learning, the outcome of both methods tends to be the same.

While it is true that learning can be a fun process for children through online school, cheating is still a concern among scholars, since students are more prone to cheat if nobody is looking at them. Indeed, even though an honor code exists in online schools, as well as online plagiarism detection software, the temptation persists. Anas (2011) points out that: “in a study [at Ohio University] involving only online students where exams were not proctored, nearly 73 percent of the students surveyed admitted to cheating on at least one of the 14 quizzes they took over the course of a semester.” As a result, if this happens in a university with people who are supposedly mature enough to follow rules and understand the consequences of their actions, it is very hard to expect integrity from children who probably are not able to understand the importance of not cheating. Nevertheless, there are some steps to enhance integrity, such as having an introductory module in the program’s orientation, having an external and internal system to check for plagiarism, and having a test bank (Barnard and Hutchins, 2009). These steps may not be sufficient to stop cheating, but at least they can help as long as parents reinforce the importance of educating children on moral and ethical behavior.

Unfortunately, the cheating-made-easy environment in which virtual learning takes place often leads many employers to question the worth of degrees obtained through online universities. As virtual learning systems mature, schools are tackling the problem of cheating with new, innovative ideas:

[P]rofessors now require online students to collaborate on projects using software that shows who made what changes, so they’ll know if any team members slacked off. Troy University in Alabama requires online students who want to take their tests at home to install lockdown browsers – software that locks down their Web browsers and a spy camera so that remote observers can make sure they don’t cheat. (Kim, 2009)

Cheating is a behavior that is associated with a type of learning that is gradually becoming obsolete: the acquisition and recollection of facts accessed via objective-type quizzes. As technology evolves to be readily available and facts can be summoned via voice command, one might argue that the recollection of facts is less important than the distinction of facts and fiction (that is, interpretation), and related competencies of analysis, critical thinking, synthesis, and evaluation. These higher-order skills are less affected by cheating since they require unique, original answers from students. More important is the effective detection of plagiarism, especially for topics and questions that are reused over multiple semesters. Luckily, much progress has been made in this respect, and the use of anti-plagiarism technology is commonplace in both online and traditional courses.


Special needs children involve those who have severe injuries or learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and are unable to, or it is extremely difficult for them to, attend a regular school. They also include children with autism spectrum disorders and can include students who have certain phobias of society.

In England, online programs such as NotSchool and schome have increased the ease of access for wheelchair or hospital-ridden patients who have difficulty attending public schools on a daily basis, while still maintaining previously formed social relationships with friends. In web-based learning programs, disenfranchised students can access the internet at their convenience to learn together.

iSocial is a premiere example of helping children with special needs, especially those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), where children have developmental problems in communication and interaction. Developed at the University of Missouri, iSocial creates a three-dimensional (3D) virtual world, a safe haven, where autistic children can develop freely without fear. Users create avatars to lead them through virtual learning environments, developing pro-social skills along the way, interacting in a controlled environment. These skills, such as facial expression recognition, need to be developed in autism patients, and are typically developed through expensive face-to-face interaction. With the use of iSocial, costs are scaled back and significant results have been achieved.

Bullying in Schools

Children who have been bullied might find online schools the best alternative to avoid going to a traditional school and being threatened there. Bullying is a serious concern for parents and students around the United States, and the statistics are worrisome:

•   one out of four children are bullied every month in the US; one out of ten drop out of school because of repetitive bullying;5.

•   43 percent of middle school students have threatened to harm another student, and 20 percent of high school students say they have been bullied in school during the past year; and

•   35.5 percent of students believe schools can help prevent bullying (Fudin, 2012).

Bullying is a physical, verbal, or cyber violent practice that unfortunately has increased over the past few years and has even led to deaths in extreme cases. defines bullying as “an unwanted and aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Among the common ways to bully someone are hitting, punching, rumor-spreading, spoken threats, or other peer aggression by using SMS, emails, and social media applications such as Google+, Instagram, Facebook, and SnapChat (Brank et al., 2012). This behavior, known as micro-aggression, is becoming increasingly common in traditional schools, and parents are changing schools when it happens rather than making a complaint to the principal in the current school. Parents may choose to respond in that manner because they fear that their children may receive more attacks from an aggressor if they inform school administrators. As bullying continues online, it is becoming more difficult for parents to just leave traditional schools for online ones.

In January 2013, President Obama released a plan to make schools safer by reducing violence and increasing access to mental health services. This plan offered hope for those students suffering from bullying; but while the plan sounds enticing, parents are usually quick to react to bullying, and its effects may not be felt in a timely enough manner for most vulnerable students. Consequently, the perception that bullying is less frequent in online schools than in traditional schools gives some relief to the parents and students. Psychologist Dan Olweus of the University of Bergen in Norway found in a study of about 450000 US students in grades 3–12 that 18 percent of students had been verbally bullied, while about 5 percent had been cyberbullied; hence, Olweus affirms that cyberbullying, while certainly increasing, has been exaggerated beyond its actual scope (US News and World Report, 2012). Some legitimate fears include security online, but this can be greatly tempered by the involvement of parents, as well as safeguards put in place by schools. If technology can be created to put a man on the moon, get the internet on your cellphone, and allow for tests to be taken through cellphones with voice recognition software, then programs can be created to protect children from the negative side of the internet.

Overcoming Social Isolation

As technology advances and super-smart computers such as IBM’s Watson advance into the mainstream, as well as the development of augmented reality, and use of holographic images increases, digital learning is fast becoming an ideal (and in the long term, cheaper) alternative to traditional schooling. Online learning also reaches developing countries that suffer from lack of teachers and technology, taking a step towards diminishing the digital divide. However, studies in child psychology show the early years of schooling to be vital for social learning as well. Some professionals worry about the societal impact of a technology-assisted school room.

While the full effects of virtual education have yet to be completely studied, younger learners are not being left out of the education revolution. Every year, more children use technological devices at an earlier age. This has changed the way children learn, and confused parents and teachers alike who grew up in an antiquated world of chalk boards, textbooks, and endless paper worksheets. Some problems unique to K-12 students, such as bullying and lack of social interaction during the formative years, pose equally unique challenges for educators to design systems to teach students not only material, but life skills as well. As technology develops and kids are exposed at increasingly younger ages, integration with the school system is inevitable. Parents now have the option to send their children off to school each day either by bus or via an internet connection, and the reasons for their choices are as varied as the students themselves. Inevitably, a wider choice of options allows parents to choose a combination of online and face-to-face instruction to strengthen a student’s education.

Technological advances create a safer and brighter future for students who are disadvantaged and disenfranchised; the autistic, the socially phobic, and the mentally or physically handicapped all have a place where they can belong. This safe place is not isolated from the rest of society, but rather creates a new society of social learning that has the potential for much wider application, if accepted and not shunned.








augmented reality 163

Babbel 154

Cornell Computer Reuse Association (CCRA) 157

cyber charter schools 156

district-level supplemental programs 156

Google+ 163

holographic images 163

Internet Generation 152

iSocial 162 155

lockdown browsers 161

multidistrict cyber schools 156

NotSchool 162

One Laptop Per Child 159

online homeschooling 159

primary and secondary (K-12) school 152

professional orientation 154

Rosetta Stone 154

schome 162

single-district cyber schools 156

social emotional learning (SEL) 153

social skills 156

statewide supplemental programs 156 162

Sugar interface 159

Watson 163