K-12 Online Learning in the U.S

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K-12 Online Learning in the U.S. Amy Murin* y John Watson**


K-12 schools in the United States face ever-growing challenges around educating a growing and diverse student population in a time of shrinking budgets. Online and blended learning are rapidly becoming part of the solution to these challenges. These technology-supported options provide individualized learning opportunities, the potential for cost-savings, and an opportunity to teach students 21st century skills. As of late 2011, online and blended learning opportunities exist for at least some students in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, although no state has a full suite of full-time and supplemental options for students at all grade levels. While education advocates have in the past been focused on improving opportunities for online and blended learning, they are now equally focused on the need to ensure improved student outcomes as well.

Education structure in the United States

The U.S. education system is overseen by a federal level Department of Education that is responsible for enforcing national legislation, mostly under the law titled No Child Left Behind, but with most accountability and decisions made at the state and local level. State-level departments of education in all 50 states support regional offices, districts, and individual schools. Education is compulsory in most states from age six through 17, typically 1st grade through high school, although that may vary by a year or two. Student grade progression is detailed in Figure 1.

Across the 50 states there are 13,600 districts that include 99,000 public schools employing 3.2 million teachers who teach 49 million students (2.9 million of which are expected to graduate from high school in 2012). Some districts are massive—New York City Public Schools served 1.1 million students in 2010-11—while some rural districts serve less than 100 students.

In comparison, online education is only just taking root, both for full-time students and in supplemental form. According to Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: A Guide to Policy and Practice, 20111 there were an estimated 250,000 students enrolled in full-time online schools in 2010-11, an increase of 25% from the previous year. Many more students take a small number of online courses to supplemental a traditional brick-and-mortar course schedule. Florida Virtual School (FLVS) started in 1997 and is now the largest online school in the country. It served 259,928 course enrollments (one student enrolled in one course) in 2010-11, a 22% increase from the previous year. FLVS is now selling its curriculum to other online programs around the country, and is a model for online program in terms of its funding, its student completion rates, and its high quality curriculum design.

Figure 1. The structure of education in the U.S.2

Challenges in the U.S. Education System

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States education system spends the most per student of any country in the world. However, it ranks 34th in the world for high school graduation rate, with only 74% of its students graduating on time.3

Students who are staying in school are not achieving at expected levels. The OECD administers the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and found that U.S. students came in 32nd of 65 participating countries in terms of math proficiency, and 17th in terms of reading proficiency.

Finally, even those students who graduate might find themselves with a different set of skills than a graduate on the other side of their state. Smaller schools are not able to offer the same breadth of online courses as they simply do not have the resources, so students from larger schools typically have more courses to choose from and can choose from more varied academic paths.

Online and blended learning are proving to be significant opportunities for schools around the country to address some of these challenges.

Defining online learning

Online schools vary in many of their key elements. A set of the defining dimensions of online programs, represented in Figure 2,4 describes whether the program is supplemental or full-time; the breadth of its geographic reach; the organizational type and operational control; and location and type of instruction. Some of these attributes may be combined or operate along a continuum (e.g., location and type of instruction).

Of the 10 dimensions listed in the figure, four are especially significant:

  • Comprehensiveness (supplemental vs. full-time): One important distinction is whether the online program provides a complete set of courses for students enrolled full-time or provides a small number of supplemental courses to students enrolled in a physical school. Full-time programs typically must address the same accountability measures as physical schools in their states. Schools that use a full-time blended learning model including Rocketship Education in California and Carpe Diem in Arizona are considered “full-time.”
  • Reach: Online programs may operate within a school district, across multiple school districts, across a state, or in a few cases, nationally or internationally. The geographic reach of online programs is a major contributing factor to the ways in which education policies can be outdated when applied to online programs, if only because the policies do not account for the possibility that a student in California may be learning from a teacher in Illinois who is employed by a program in Massachusetts.
  • Delivery (synchronous vs. asynchronous): Most online programs are primarily asynchronous meaning that students and teachers work at different times, not necessarily in real-time interaction with each other—but those that operate classes in real time may present a somewhat different set of program and policy questions depending on state policies.
  • Type of instruction (from fully online to fully face-to-face): Many programs are now combining the best aspects of online and classroom instruction to create a variety of blended or hybrid learning experiences.

Figure 2. Defining dimensions of online programs

The myriad online program attributes can be combined into a few major categories of online schools.

Keeping Pace places online programs into the following categories:

  • State virtual schools
  • Single-district programs
  • Multi-district full-time schools
  • Consortium programs
  • Programs run by postsecondary institutions

Note that these categories share some common attributes, but the programs within each category are not exactly the same. For example, most state virtual schools are supplemental, but a few have full-time students. Also, note that the categories are not based on a single defining dimension; instead, each has one or two dominant dimensions that define the category. We will take a closer look at the first three categories of programs; for further details about the other categories see Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning (2011). 

One of the misconceptions about learning online is that online courses consist mostly of reading on a computer screen. While this may be true of a few online programs, in most online courses there is a high degree of communication and interaction between teachers and students. In fact, many online teachers report that teaching online is more time consuming than teaching in a classroom because of the amount of individual attention each online student receives. As a result, online and blended learning provide an opportunity to better meet the individual needs of students, who represent an ever broad array of backgrounds, abilities, and ambitions.

State virtual schools

State virtual schools are created by legislation or by a state-level agency, and/or administered by a state education agency, and/or funded by a state appropriation or grant for the purpose of providing online learning opportunities across the state. (They may also receive federal or private foundation grants, and often charge course fees to help cover their costs.) Examples of state virtual schools include the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, Florida Virtual School, and Michigan Virtual School. Because online programs evolve, some programs are categorized as state virtual schools but do not fit the definition presently, though they may have done so at important stages of their development.

State-led online initiatives are different from state virtual schools in that these initiatives typically offer online tools and resources for schools across the state. However, they do not have a centralized student enrollment or registration system for students in online courses. Examples include the Oregon Virtual School District and Massachusetts Online Network for Education (MassONE).

As of fall 2011, 40 states have one or the other of these, accounting for 536,272 course enrollments, a 19% annual increase. Figure 3 shows all of the state virtual schools and state-led online initiatives in the U.S., with enrollment data.

We see state virtual schools and initiatives falling into two broad categories. In the first, state virtual schools and state-led initiatives remain an important part of the online learning landscape in states such as Florida, Alabama, Idaho, and Michigan. As a whole, however, they are relatively less important than they were in past years, for two main reasons. First, in most states individual districts, consortia, and private providers are playing a larger role in providing supplemental online courses to students. Second, in many states the state virtual school has been underfunded or defunded. As of 2011 there are many state virtual schools that are not funded at a level to meet demand, which is having a significant impact on students in those states. According to Keeping Pace, the 18 prominent state virtual schools, based on their size relative to the state student population, are either funded based on a formula that taps into the public education funding formula (e.g., FLVS and North Carolina Virtual Public School), or are well-funded via state appropriations relative to the size of the state (e.g., Alabama, Idaho) so that districts pay little or nothing for their students to take an online course.

Figure 3. State virtual schools, 2011

The second category are the relatively small state virtual schools that have received annual appropriations of not more than a few hundred thousand dollars, and provide courses to districts at rates similar to the fees charged by private providers. This list includes Texas and Tennessee, both of which were fairly large in 2010-11 but lost funding in 2011-12; as a result we expect to see a precipitous drop-off in course enrollments in 2011-12.

Single district programs

Some states draw a distinction between single-district programs, which serve students who reside within the district that is providing the online courses, and multi-district programs, which serve students from multiple districts and often serve students statewide. Single-district programs may serve a small number of students from outside the home district while retaining single-district status. There is a wide spectrum of programs at the district level including fully online programs, blended learning programs, summer school programs, credit recovery programs, alternative high schools, programs providing AP courses and/or other electives, and individual courses. These types of programs are not mutually exclusive and often overlap.

Growth within single district programs is outpacing all other segments. Several years ago, state-level and statewide schools and programs were driving most online learning activity, but that is no longer the case. A corollary to the growth of district online programs is that many of these options blend online and face to-face learning, instead of being entirely online as many state-level schools were. One reason is simple: Districts are often serving their own students, who are local, so there is limited need to bridge large distances. Even when the district is providing an online course with a remote teacher, the local school often provides a computer lab, facilitator, or other on-site resources that may define the course as blended instead of fully online.

While there is a broad range of online offerings at the district level, most single-district programs share the following attributes:

  • Often combine fully online and face-to-face components in blended courses or programs.
  • Are mostly supplemental, with some serving full-time online students. However, the distinction is blurred in a single-district program because while the students are full-time, they are likely to be mixing online and face to-face classes.
  • Often are focused on credit recovery or at-risk students.
  • Are funded primarily by the district out of public funds intermingled between the online program and the rest of the district. In most cases, there is no difference in funding between online students and students in the physical setting.
  • Grade levels are primarily high school, with some middle school. A very small number of districts are beginning to create online and blended options for elementary students.

In November 2011, the National Center for Education Statistics released the report Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009-105, which offers the first look at district-level enrollments in distance education courses since the same data was gathered in 2004-05. It estimates that 55% of school districts in the U.S. have at least one student enrollment in a distance education courses (a significant majority of which are delivered over the internet), for an estimated total of 1.8 million students nationwide.  The sources of these courses vary widely, and include private vendors providing online courses directly to districts, full-time online schools, and state virtual schools. However, the number of districts that have a well-established program with a program director, program website, and formal course catalog is likely far less than that number. The report notes that only 21% of districts with distance education enrollments had more than 100 enrollments, meaning that only about 11% of the school districts in the U.S. have comprehensive offerings for students.

Multi-district programs

Multi-district online programs are authorized to serve students outside their districts, and typically share the following attributes:

  • They are often organized as a charter school.
  • Many schools are affiliated with a national organization, such as Connections Learning, K12 Inc., or Advanced Academics which provides courses, software, teacher professional development, and other key management and logistical support.
  • Most of these schools attract students from across the entire state, in order to achieve scale; therefore most of these schools are in states that allow students to enroll across district lines and have funding follow the student.
  • All grade levels are offered in online schools collectively, although individual schools may be limited to older or younger students.
  • Often is provided via state public education funds that follow the student, though some are funded through appropriations, fees, or grants.
  • La mayoría tienen pocos o ningún estudiantes de medio tiempo y la mayoría cuentan con una matrícula de unos pocos cientos a varios miles de estudiantes.
  • Most have few or no part-time students, and most have enrollment of a few hundred to several thousand students.

The number of states that have multi-district full-time online schools is growing, as is the number of these schools and the number of students obtaining most or all of their education online. Although growth has not been equal across all states, in general growth in full-time online schools across the country has been steadier than the uneven growth experienced by state virtual schools. A full-time online education is now being offered to at least some students in 30 states and Washington, D.C. (see Figure 4); this is up from 27 states in 2010. Enrollments have continued to grow, from an estimated 200,000 nationwide in 2009-10 to 250,000 in 2010-11. In 2010-11, Arizona, Ohio, and Pennsylvania reported the most full-time online student enrollments, although Arizona is reporting the unique count of students who have taken online courses throughout the year, regardless of whether the student took one course or many. In addition, in recent years there has been a rise in the number of districts offering full-time online programs only to students within their district. These programs can issue a diploma from that district. Not all states require separate authorization or reporting for these programs, so they are more difficult to track.

Figure 4. Multi-district full-time online schools, 2011

Blended learning

One of the evolutions of online learning that is gaining steam is the growth in blended, or hybrid, learning options. Blended learning combines online learning with other modes of delivery, and is typically woven into a traditional school environment.  Keeping Pace adapts a definition developed by the Innosight Institute in The Rise of Blended Learning as follows: “A combination of online and face-to-face instruction in which the student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.”6

The role of the teacher is critical, as blended learning requires a transformation of instruction as the teacher becomes a learning facilitator; instruction involves increased interaction between student-and instructor, student-to-content and student-to-student. Although “blended learning” is a noun, the term “blended” can also be an adjective that describes different units of education. “Blended” may describe:

  • A course that combines face-to-face instruction and online instruction
  • A school that combines some fully face-to-face courses and some fully online courses
  • A school that offers mostly or entirely blended courses
  • A student’s coursework, if the student is self-blending by taking a la carte courses from a virtual school while also attending a traditional brick-and-mortar school

Because blended combines online and face-to-face instruction, primarily at either the course or school level, one might argue that any course that is not entirely face-to-face or entirely online is by definition blended. Although this may be true in a semantic sense, it is not helpful in terms of defining practices or creating policies.

Two elements describe blended learning in a way that is useful in policy and practice:

  1. Blended should describe courses and schools that have significant components of both online and face-to-face instruction and/or curriculum. A school that is online but has the option of a drop-in center for students, for example, should be considered online. A face-to-face course that adds a few digital resources but does not require their use, and does not shift instruction to the online environment, should be considered face-to-face.
  2. Blended learning should significantly expand or transform instruction and learning. Both of the above points defy easy categorization. Blended learning has sometimes been defined based on the percentage of instruction that takes place online, but the precision of a number (e.g., 65% of instruction take place online) obscures the fact that in practice determining a percentage of instruction is difficult. The second point, that blended learning should expand or transform learning, may be the salient point, but the question of how to determine transformation remains.

One important way that a blended approach can transform instruction is by providing a rich data stream about a student’s learning that can be used by that student’s teachers—both online and offline—to provide truly differentiated instruction. For example, in a blended middle school, reading comprehension data from students’ online social studies course can be used by the face-to-face language arts teacher to determine small groups in the physical classroom.

Accountability in online and blended learning

There is an inherent variability in online schools—in fact, in all schools—that establishes the need for improved accountability in the education system. The limited available data demonstrate shortcomings in current accountability systems, and especially, the limitations of applying present accountability systems to situations where students can choose online courses (not just schools) from multiple providers.

The current K-12 education accountability chain—built during the pre-digital age—starts at the school level, goes through the district, and up to the state. Each state differs in the level of control afforded to districts, but many states defer to the districts—overseen most frequently by local school boards—on most operational decisions. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates that states dictate changes to schools and districts that fail to meet outcomes standards, but in practice the changes forced by states on districts have been limited.

The accountability chain changes with online learning because it introduces new types of providers into the mix, and because online learning is allowing students increased choices among schools and courses. Student choice is, in turn, taking some responsibility away from the districts, thereby disrupting the accountability chain. In addition, identifying the new locus of accountability is not an easy task because of the many different types of providers. Education providers range from full-time virtual schools, which create their own content and provide teachers, software, and student support, to content providers that sell, among other services, individual course content. Course operators may or may not be the same entity as the content provider, and they may or may not be a school.

Online course providers blur the line by providing different choices than existed previously. Many providers will offer the content with or without an organizing technology (the learning management system), and with or without an online teacher. These options raise the question of which entity should be responsible for student outcomes when students are choosing online courses at the single course level.

While many states are addressing accountability for online and blended programs in different ways, no model has yet emerged as a new standard. This is, in part, because accountability systems must be based on the types of online learning providers in a state. Alabama, with one main provider (ACCESS), faces different accountability issues than states such as Utah and Florida, which are allowing students to choose from multiple providers at the course level. In our view, accountability is the responsibility of educational providers including schools, teachers, producers of online content, and others—to students, families, and other stakeholders, to produce positive student outcomes. In the virtual sphere, accountability should have the following features:

  1. Accountability should be based on outcomes, not on inputs. While quality may be addressed via inputs (such as teacher credentials, student-teacher ratios, course design, etc.),7 accountability should be based on student results. In addition, outcomes should be based on student growth, so that providers are accountable for the amount of learning that happens in a course, instead of being penalized or rewarded for teaching students who are behind or ahead of their peers.
  2. Data from online and blended schools must be disaggregated from overall district numbers. In some states and for some schools, outcomes cannot be assessed because the results are encompassed within district-wide numbers that are not disaggregated. Proper oversight requires that data from online and blended schools be readily available.
  3. Accountability must exist at the course level if students are choosing courses among multiple providers.

The accountability model required under NCLB uses state-level assessments in a relatively small number of subjects to measure student and school success. The transformation to the digital age and the possibility that students will take courses from multiple providers means that the “accountability unit” must shift from the school and district level to the course level.

Online and blended courses can mix and match teachers, content, and technology in new and unprecedented ways. In a traditional school, there is no question where accountability lies: with the school and, secondarily, with individual teachers. Online courses raise new accountability questions because a single provider may provide the content and teacher, or provide just the content. Similarly, the provider may work through the district, which selects the provider, or be chosen directly by the student. Although this confusion may make it difficult to identify the responsible entity or entities, it must be done.

Online and blended learning in the U.S. is shifting from a focus on availability to a focus on accountability and quality as more options become available to more students. The key challenge, however, remains the same: to offer a high quality, transformational learning experience for students.

* Amy Murin  y John Watson**, Evergreen Education Group, 700 Main Avenue, Suite E Durango, CO 81301, amy@evergreenedgroup.com

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., and Rapp, C. Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice. (2011) http://kpk12.com/reports/

2 National Center for Education Statistics, The Structure of Education in the United States. (2010) http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/figures/fig_01.asp?referrer=figures

3 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Financial and Human Resources Invested in Education, http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/61/18/48630868.pdfand Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators, Indicator A2: How many students finish secondary education? (2011) http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/62/3/48630687.pdf

4 Defining dimensions of online programs. Figure adapted from Gregg Vanourek, A Primer on Virtual Charter Schools: Mapping the Electronic Frontier, Issue Brief for National Association of Charter School Authorizers, August 2006.

5 National Center for Education Statistics, Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009-10; November 29, 2011, http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2012008

6 The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, Staker, H., and Horn, M., Innosight Institute and Charter School Growth Fund, May 2011, http://www.innosightinstitute.org/media-room/publications/education-publications/the-rise-of-k-12-blended-learning/

7 Quality in online courses, teaching, and programs has been extensively addressed by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Quality standards are available at www.inacol.org.