More students than ever before are taking online courses, giving new options to both parents and students. Evergreen Education Group’s Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning defines online learning as teacher-led education through the Internet, with teachers and students separated geographically, using a Web-based delivery system with software that provides a structured learning environment.
- Supplemental online programs that provide a few courses to students who are enrolled in a school separate from the online program.
- Fully online schools, also known as cyber or virtual schools, that work with students who are enrolled primarily in the online school.
- Blended learning, which combines online and in-school learning, where students learn at least in part through online content delivery and in part at school.
Online Learning Approaches. Online learning in states and school districts varies. State virtual schools, available in 27 states, are created by legislation or a state agency and primarily provide supplemental courses to students enrolled in physical schools. Supplemental courses can provide access to quality instruction—both required and specialized—not provided elsewhere, including advanced placement and foreign language classes.
Full-time online schools, available in 31 states, can be managed by a state, district, university, charter school, not-for-profit, for-profit or other institution. Full-time online programs allow students to enroll and earn academic credit based on successful completion of courses provided by the online school.
Increasingly, online learning is becoming more widespread through a “blended learning” model—with schools, courses and programs combining online and in-person instruction. Teachers who incorporate blended learning into their instruction say it provides them with a wealth of information to better meet individual students' needs. Data about a student’s online course performance, for example, can be instantly given to an on-site teacher. That information then can help determine an appropriate blend of activities—both group and individual—to ensure that students stay on track. Blended learning models vary greatly and continue to evolve as educators experiment to find the perfect balance of face-to-face and online instruction.
Research. Research indicates that online and blended learning can work. In general, evidence shows that online and blended learning can result in better student outcomes if implemented well, and flat or negative outcomes if implemented poorly. The question now is not, “Does online learning work?” but, rather, “Under what conditions does online learning work best?”
Accountability. Online learning programs have increasingly been scrutinized as states struggle to ensure student achievement and accountability. Whether such schools are operated by for profit companies or affiliated with states and school districts, state policymakers can take steps to ensure that students are learning. According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, states may want to explore multiple measures based on results when they evaluate online schools, including student proficiency, individual student growth, graduation rates, college and career readiness, and closing the achievement gap.
Funding. Online schools and programs are funded in various ways. Some are linked to funding for physical schools, for example. Funding methods include:
- Appropriations, which are often used for state virtual schools.
- Standard average daily attendance or average daily membership, often used by districts.
- Online student funding, which sets a funding level or calculation for fully online schools.
- Charter school funding, which sets a funding level or calculation for all charter schools, including online charter schools.
- Independent study or other alternative programs; funding and calculation levels vary by state.
Course-level funding is a relatively new concept in which funding goes to the course provider instead of the enrolling district. Another emerging concept is performance-based funding. Several states—including Florida, Louisiana, Utah and Texas—fund individual online courses based partially on demonstrated student success.
As of late 2012, online learning is available to at least some students in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, but availability varies greatly. Florida is the only state that provides a full range of online learning opportunities for students at all grade levels. Legislation passed in 2011 and 2012 makes supplemental and full-time online programs available to students statewide.
A handful of states have passed blended learning laws during the past two years that allow students to choose online courses from multiple providers, with funding following the student. Utah was among the first to allow students to supplement their education with online courses with the passage of SB 65 (2011) and SB 178 (2012). Students and parents can choose from courses and state-approved course providers; students are allowed to advance based on competency rather than on seat time; and funding follows the student to the course level, based upon successful completion.
Finally, legislatures are acting to ensure that students are graduating from high school with online learning experience. Four states—Alabama, Florida, Michigan and Virginia—now include online learning as a high school graduation requirement.
At least four states now include online learning as a high school graduation requirement, often seen as a first step to ensuring all students are technologically literate.