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Online education for K-12 students spread rapidly in the United States this year, aided by new technologies and ideas such as “flipped classrooms,” according to a study released on June 15th. But the extent to which new technologies and approaches might raise student achievement remains unclear. A second study questions whether the net result will be positive.

The New Media Consortium—a group of education technology leaders who study the role of tech in schools—published the first study, its yearly K-12 Horizon Report naming the top six technological trends that are changing the field of education. In addition, the report looks one, three and five years into the future to see which technologies are likeliest to play important roles in U.S. schools.

More people than ever before believe that virtual education could prove important, according to the report, which surveyed experts across the country. Other trends documented in recent years, such as flipped classrooms—where students watch lectures at home on the computer and spend class time doing “homework”—are accelerating and leading to a redefinition of the role of the teacher, according to the report’s authors. The annual report also found that an increasing number of students are bringing their own mobile devices to school to use for learning.

“It’s still a small piece of the education landscape, but it has come on so quickly,” said Larry Johnson, the CEO of the New Media Consortium, in a webinar announcing the study last month.

Game-based learning remains two or three years away from making a big difference in education, the report’s authors said. The right technology for creating high-quality educational games does not yet exist, Johnson said. It is “tantalizingly in the distance.”

The other report, published in May by the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association, focuses on virtual education. The report’s authors argue that little is known about how much online education programs actually cost or how well they educate students.

Multiple studies cited in the Center for Public Education report detail how students who attend online schools (particularly full-time online programs) perform worse, on average, on reading and math exams than their peers who attend traditional brick-and-mortar schools. However, there’s evidence that elementary students who learn online perform better than their peers in traditional schools. One possible reason may be that younger children in online education programs tend to have parents who are more involved with their schoolwork than older students.

Advocates of online education have said that one of its benefits is a favorable bottom line: Online programs may end up being cheaper because teachers can handle more students and facility expenses are reduced. But a look at four states that are ahead of the pack in the online education movement—Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania—found that this may not always be the case. In those states, online schools receive between 70 and 100 percent of the per-pupil money that traditional schools receive. The report also found it difficult to track the spending of for-profit online schools, which have very complex funding formulas and aren’t required to release details of their spending.

The Center for Public Education report calls for greater overall accountability for online programs, especially regarding data collection on student progress and costs. For the time being, Patte Barth, a co-author of the study, offers some simple advice for states and districts considering online programs: “Look before you leap.”

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