El futuro del aprendizaje: tendencias en la educación K-12 mixta y en línea en los Estados Unidos

Artículo por invitación

Future of Learning: K-12 Blended and Online Learning Trends in the United States

Allison Powel
International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL)


What does the future of learning look like? How do we define a world-class education for today’s students? A U.S. perspective on trends in education, expectations for students, and strategies schools need to have in place. Online and blended learning are enabling a revolution across the globe, allowing great teachers to reach the most remote students and engage our most challenging populations. They offer solutions for expanding opportunities, global collaboration, and 21st century skills so every student can have access to the best education available. Learn about the latest research and practices from the U.S.

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Primary and secondary school students today are using the Internet for research, accessing greater resources, exposure to primary sources, collaborating with students, teachers and experts and creating their own content. More than half of high school students are creators of content. Online and blended learning models are emerging as a powerful force for tapping this phenomenon to transform the way our students learn for the 21st century, via highly personalized instruction and performance-based models of assessment.

An Overview of Online and Blended Learning in the United States

There are 13,588 school districts in the 50 U.S. states (IES, 2012), each with their own independent policies and practices related to K-12 education. While this can seem overwhelming, a growing trend has emerged, with all 50 states having implemented some form of blended and online learning within both their policies and their schools.

Online and blended learning programs exist in a variety of forms across the United States. Over 2 million K-12 students are accessing online courses. The majority of these students are in high school and typically accessing one or two online courses for a variety of reasons, such as: taking a class that is not offered within their traditional school; to make up credits after failing a course; to graduate early; to work at their own pace, etc. However, roughly 315,000 (Watson, Pape, Murin, Gemin, & Vashaw, 2014) K-12 students are enrolled in full-time virtual schools, accessing their entire curriculum online. While this is a small group of students, these full-time schools provide options for students who may travel, are training for the Olympics, are physically homebound, or were bullied in their traditional school, offering them a safe learning environment in their own home.

Each online and blended learning school model is unique, but all quality models have based their learning design around the student. When developing new learning models, schools must consider and plan around about 4 main elements: technology platforms, the people/pedagogy/professional development, assessment, and online content and courses as described in the graphic below.

Graphic 1. New Models Using Online & Blended Learning.

RMBD13_01 FIG01-01

While technology (“T”) is listed at the top of the list, and is essential to the development of these new models, the “P” embraces the importance of people, new pedagogical models, and professional development to transform the old system into more student-centered models. These models require a shift in mindset around leadership, pedagogy and staffing roles for all educators (Patrick, 2011).

Types of Online and Blended Schools in the United States

State Virtual Schools

Students can access online courses from a variety of types of schools and programs. Twenty-six states have State Virtual Schools, which are programs created and/or funded by legislation or by a state level agency, for the purpose of providing online learning opportunities for students across the state. The schools also may receive federal or private foundation grants and they often charge course fees to students or their districts to help cover costs.

These state virtual schools offer a variety of online courses to middle and high school students. These programs tend to only offer supplemental courses, requiring students to also be enrolled in a traditional school.

During the 2013-2014 school year, over 740,000 students enrolled in a course offered by a state virtual school (Watson, Pape, Murin, Gemin, & Vashaw, 2014). These state-led programs were the beginning of online learning in the United States. In the mid 1990s, it was expensive to purchase a learning management system, to develop content and to train teachers to teach in these new environments. The state virtual schools provide access to high-quality content and teachers to all students living in the state. With the development of state virtual schools, districts are now able to provide access to courses and teachers they would otherwise not be able to do with their own limited resources, creating equal opportunities for all students.

Full-time Online Schools

While the majority of students are accessing only one to two supplemental online courses each year, there is a need from a small percentage of students to attend school fully online. These schools provide students’ entire course load through online courses, and do not have a physical building that students attend regularly. Unlike state virtual schools, which do not provide a full range of student services as a full-time brick-and-mortar school would, full-time online schools are responsible for students’ state assessments, and are graded, as all schools are, based on the state’s performance framework. These online schools must follow all of the same policies as traditional schools.

Full-time schools usually provide extensive professional development for teachers because they are not able to hire enough teachers with sufficient previous experience teaching online. Teachers and students communicate from a distance, using online communication tools and telephones. These schools also serve all grade levels, K-12, and their methods of instruction vary between grade levels. Younger students spend less time online and use more print materials, and utilize a parent or other learning coach for help. Older students spend more time online, use fewer print materials, and communicate mostly with their teacher online.

Most full-time online schools are run by an Education Management Organization (EMO), which provides groups of people within each state all of the resources needed to run an online school. These schools tend to be charter schools, which are independently run public schools granted greater flexibility in their operations, in return for greater accountability for performance. The “charter” establishing each school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals, and methods of assessment (Uncommon Schools, 2014).

Full-time online schools tend to serve students with much higher rates of mobility than the student population as a whole. In the case of elementary and middle school students, many attend an online school due to temporary reasons (illness, injury, behavioral issues, allergies). In high schools, many students move to an online school because they are behind and at risk of dropping out of school altogether. These schools enroll students from across entire states, in order to reach a critical mass.

Online Private Schools

There are over 30,000 private schools in the United States, serving about five million students in grades K-12. Private schools tend to be smaller with a lower student teacher ratio than traditional and online schools. Most of these schools also have a religious affiliation and charge a smaller tuition than the non-sectarian private schools.

While private schools have tended to adopt devices and technology platforms faster than public schools, they have generally lagged behind in their adoption of online and blended learning (Watson, Pape, Murin, Gemin, y Vashaw, 2014). Because private schools are much smaller, teachers can personalize learning for each student without the technology, but these schools are starting to see the benefits of online and blended learning.

Over the past few years, several consortiums of private schools have been formed to develop and share digital content and high-quality teachers across the network. Catholic and Jewish schools are attempting to lower their costs by developing content and training teachers in their network that can be offered in schools across the country. However, the main reason many private schools are moving in this direction is to increase course options for their students.

District-wide Online Programs

As more digital resources and technology platforms become available at more affordable prices, online learning programs are starting to be developed within school districts across the country. When students access online courses from programs offered outside of the school district, the district is normally responsible for the payment of the course(s). Now that online learning is becoming more mainstream, districts can now build their own online programs/schools and keep their students and funding in the district. This new trend is also forcing all schools to build more engaging and personalized learning experiences for students, as each student now has more options for choosing how they learn.

Most districts have multiple digital learning initiatives across the district. Districts tend to start with their own district-run online program, offering either supplemental or full-time options, or both. In addition, many teachers within the district can now access the digital content and use it to supplement the activities they are doing in their face-to-face classrooms. Some districts are also beginning to redesign entire schools or have plans to re-imagine the whole district using these online courses. These programs usually start small with one school, grade level, or a few classrooms.

The total number of students taking part in all of these programs is unknown, but it approximates several million, or slightly more than 5% of the total K-12 student population across the United States. We stress, however, that we estimate this by triangulating from close to a dozen sources. No single source is comprehensive.

Blended Learning

Fully online courses have now been offered to K-12 students in the United States for over 20 years; however, over the past ten years, we have begun to see a new trend of brick-and-mortar schools using the digital content from online courses to transform learning in traditional classrooms. This is now referred to as blended learning.

Blended learning can be defined as: “A formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace, and at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home, and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience” (Horn & Staker, 2013).

Blended learning is happening in thousands of classrooms across the country, with a few model school and district examples emerging, each with the goal of personalizing learning for every student. However, the level of digital instruction varies in blended schools. They may use digital content and tools across most subject areas, or in just one or more core areas. Also, the proportion of instruction that takes place online varies between subjects, grade levels, and schools. No single approach exists. Finally, some blended schools require students to attend the physical school building on most days, which geographically limits the student population. Student mobility in these schools is not as high as mobility in online schools.

Compared to public school districts, blended schools are more likely to be using pioneering approaches to classroom and school configurations, instructional models, and bell schedules. They often provide extensive professional development for teachers because they are not able to hire enough teachers with sufficient experience using digital content and tools. While there are several great individual classroom and school examples of blended learning, and this model has the most potential to truly transform our education system, it is still very new and difficult to implement system-wide.

Fast Facts about Online and Blended Learning (iNACOL, 2013)

Online learning is rapidly growing for grades K-12. Enrollments have continued to grow at an average of 30% annually since 2000 (50,000 in 2000; 500,000 enrollments in 2005; 1.8 million in 2010). Roughly 16% of the entire K-12 population have enrolled in an online course, with 82% of school districts reporting that they had one or more students taking a fully-online or blended course.

More American universities are now offering K-12 courses online. Programs such as Stanford and Northwestern have developed programs for gifted students while the University of Nebraska and Indiana University offer courses for all K-12 students. The state of Montana has gone in a unique direction and offers their state virtual school through the University of Montana. All teachers are trained and courses developed by the university and offered to students across the state.

Schools and districts are offering online courses for a variety of reasons. 75% of school districts in the United States are using online learning to provide access to Advanced Placement (AP®) courses as over 40% of districts do not offer any of these college-prep courses.

Teacher Shortages

40% of public school districts in America today say they need online learning resources because certified teachers are not available for traditional face-to-face instruction. More than 50% of schools in the United States need online learning to reduce student scheduling conflicts to graduate on time, and 60% of school districts say they need online learning for credit recovery.

Professional Development

Professional development for online teachers is lagging in the United States. Several universities provide Master degree and certificate programs for in-service teachers, but very few universities are preparing pre-service teachers to teach in new learning environments such as online and blended classrooms, forcing the online schools to develop and provide their own training.

There are two forward thinking universities, University of Central Florida and Michigan State University, that have integrated pedagogical approaches to teaching in new learning environments. They have also partnered with their state virtual schools to give undergraduate students the opportunity to participate in practicums and student teaching opportunities before graduation.

Several non-profit organizations and companies have developed professional development as well, in order to supplement and assist online schools with preparing teachers. When schools purchase technology and digital content, the vendor will typically provide training on that product, but the change in pedagogy is not usually addressed in these trainings, requiring the individual schools to develop additional training, which can lead to inconsistent outcomes.

iNACOL has developed Quality Standards for Online and Blended Teaching, which provides a framework for building teacher professional development. Idaho and Georgia have adapted these standards and created a teacher license endorsement program. Teachers completing specific professional development can earn an online teaching endorsement on their license.

While teacher professional development is important, leaders also need help in developing these new learning models and supporting their teachers. While there are very limited teacher professional development options available, there are zero options currently available to support school and district leaders. iNACOL is in the process of creating leadership quality standards in the hope that universities and non-profit organizations will create programs to support our school leaders.

State Online Learning Trends in Policy and Practice

Several trends in both policy and practice have been emerging in the United States over the last few years. An example of this is in the usage of Open Educational Resources (OER). In a recent survey done by iNACOL, states are beginning to think about the quality, development and use of OER in both online and brick-and-mortar schools. All online schools surveyed are using some combination of both OER and purchased content. Consortiums, districts, and individual schools and teachers are all developing and sharing everything from individual digital lessons to entire courses.

The quality of digital content is another important development. With so many options of content, from OER to purchased content, it can be difficult for schools, districts and states to determine the quality of an online course. iNACOL published National Standards for Quality Online Courses (iNACOL, 2011) to help the field evaluate and develop content. Texas and California have both adopted and adapted these standards and have developed a review process for all digital content. The content must be reviewed and meet the iNACOL standards in order to be offered to students within the state. Several other states are adopting similar processes to assist districts and schools in determining high-quality digital content.

Course access is another emerging topic in the field. At the state level, Departments of Education are building clearinghouses of courses (online and blended included) that students from across the state can take, no matter where they are located. The state develops a process for reviewing the courses, and if approved, they are placed into a database for parents, students, and counselors to use to access a variety of courses that the student would not otherwise have access to. Seven states now offer course access programs and four others have taken the policies to the next level by allowing the per-pupil funding to follow the student down to the course level, allowing each student to build their own education plan.

Another interesting online learning policy trend is around states and districts requiring students to complete an online course as part of their high school graduation requirements. Michigan started this trend in 2006 when the automobile industry was failing. They believed that all students would have to complete an online course at some point in their life after high school, no matter if they went straight into the workforce or enrolled in a university. By exposing them to an online course in high school, they not only would learn the content and how to take an online course, but would also gain invaluable skills such as collaborating with a team online, using the Internet and computer productively, and time management, essential skills for being successful in life. Since 2006, four other states and several districts around the country have passed similar policies.

Finally, funding schools based on student performance is another new trend. Typically in the United States, a school is funded based on student attendance. If a student is present for a specific number of days throughout the year, a school will get funding for that student. Schools receive funding based only on attendance, even if the student does not learn anything.

One of the biggest benefits of online learning is the ability for a student to work at their own pace. The traditional school funding model then becomes a barrier to online schools, creating a perverse incentive for these schools to keep students working on a traditional semester timeframe, even if they can show mastery of the content before the end of the semester.

The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) asked their legislature to be funded based on performance, rather than attendance, in order to remove this barrier. Now, this school receives a small percentage of the per-pupil funding when a student enrolls in their school. Once the student successfully completes the course, FLVS will receive the rest of the funding. If the student does not complete the course and drops out, the school receives no additional money for that student. Utah, Louisiana, and New Hampshire have passed similar policies. However, the question has been raised as to whether a teacher can manipulate grades in order to receive funding. In order to prevent this, end-of-course exams are being developed in these states and students now must not only complete the course, but pass an external exam for the school to receive funding, developing a truly performance-based funding model.

This final trend of performance-based funding has pushed a new trend on the practice side, which is competency-based education. High quality competency-based education is defined by these five elements:

• Students advance upon mastery.
• Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
• Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
• Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
• Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions (iNACOL, 2014).

Moving away from time-based funding education models allows for students to work at their own pace and only move forward on learning new concepts upon the demonstration of mastery of previous concepts, which has the potential to completely transform our entire education system.


Online learning first began in the United States to offer a variety of advanced courses to students living in remote areas of the country in the mid 1990s. At the time, it was only deemed appropriate for advanced level, high school age students. As technology has advanced, however, and digital content has become more engaging, all students are now offered the opportunity to find success in these new learning environments.

Although providing access to high quality content and teachers to students who would otherwise not have access to it, is still one of the biggest benefits of online learning, we are beginning to see the biggest benefits of using online content with all students, whether they are remote or sitting in a classroom with their teacher. New models are constantly evolving. Those blending the best of both face-to-face and online learning seems to have the most potential for truly personalizing learning for each student.

The ultimate power of blended and online learning lies in their potential to transform
the education system and to enable higher levels of learning through competency-based approaches. Technology-based models can allow for rapid capture of student performance data and differentiated instruction tailored to the specific needs of individual students. By adapting instruction to reflect the skills and knowledge students have mastered, blended and online models have the potential to keep students engaged and supported as they learn and to help them progress at their own pace, leading to dramatically higher levels of learning and attainment (iNACOL, 2014).


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