By Alex Edwards
Online education options remain a popular choice for some Colorado Springs-area parents in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Student enrollment in online schooling peaked in 2021, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s Bill Kottenstette, who is the executive director of CDE’s schools of choice unit, which oversees online schools, charter schools and innovation schools.
“What we are seeing long term is a continued growth in families seeking full time online school enrollment,” he said. “We also see a greater interest in — and demand for — part-time online enrollment.”
Kottenstette said schools faced significant challenges in the early parts of the pandemic, but says those have evolved. Where CDE was originally concerned with keeping students safe and healthy, the statewide challenges they have now are “a lot of technical stuff.”
As interest in online enrollment grows, Kottenstette says the CDE is faced with finding the right balance between online time and live instruction.
“How do we leverage what we’ve learned most effectively in terms of good practice?” he said. “We are looking at what we could be doing more of, and avoiding going back to the way we’ve always approached education.”
This year, online enrollment numbers have declined but it still exceeds the number of online students enrolled in years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. But hybrid options, where a student may spend some time online and some time in person are becoming more and more popular.
“We are seeing teachers using digital tools within their classrooms to change the way they use instruction time,” he said. “We call it a ‘flipped classroom,’ where the lesson may be digital … and classroom time is used for activity they may not have had time for.”
The hybrid model has been used to great effect at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
“We were one of the first schools to offer an online MBA program,” said Seth Porter, the dean of libraries at UCCS. “There is a lot of (tech) fluency in our faculty and IT department, so we have the grassroots foundation for a strong hybrid program.”
Online education at UCCS has been around for almost 30 years. Its MBA program was among the first to offer an online MBA accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Since then the online programs at UCCS have remained ranked among the top 100 — with some breaking into the top 50 — according to U.S. News and World Report and other ranking agencies.
Porter says support for online and hybrid learning has broad support among faculty and staff of UCCS, and contributes to what Porter sees as a student-first approach.
“This is about aligning what’s best across the board for our students’ education outcomes and their personal and professional lives,” he said.
Concerns have persisted over the quality of education gained in an online setting. Studies do show that student performance is worse in an online setting, but the Brookings Institution found the most affected were mostly male and academically unprepared students.
Porter says a hybrid approach can help alleviate those negative aspects of online only instruction.
“Hybrid is more of an ideal mode of education,” he said. “It’s a great way to find and build community and still have flexibility for students and the university.”
While Porter’s experience and knowledge is focused in higher education, primary and secondary schools in El Paso County are making use of both online and hybrid schooling.
One example is District 49’s Pikes Peak Early College, located in eastern Colorado Springs. The school offers in-person instruction on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with online lessons delivered on other days.