School Administrator, October 2001

It’s clear that online courses will become increasingly common in the K-12 environment, especially for high school students. As schools and districts consider the best way to offer online courses to supplement their current in-school curriculum, they may wish to work with one or more commercial vendors.

In choosing a vendor, school officials should consider the following eight factors:

1. Accreditation. Online courses should contribute to a student earning the credits he or she needs to graduate. Teachers and administrators must check carefully with their states to determine whether a course meets state standards. School officials should not rely solely on the representations of the commercial vendor, because the company simply may not be aware of all of the demands of a particular state.

2. Quality. Accreditation is only one aspect of quality. Find out if the proposed course or curriculum meets state and federal educational standards in its subject areas. Check the level of interactivity the curriculum promotes through the use of multimedia features, online exchanges, and teacher-student activities.

3. Flexibility in offerings. Educators should ask themselves, “Does the vendor offer short courses that address single topics, or must we sign up for a comprehensive program?” It may be best to start small and monitor students’ and teachers’ satisfaction with a program.

4. Delivery options. Application service providers (ASPs) are all the rage in school districts now. These companies host and deliver software via the internet and manage and update systems, all for a single price. Many ASPs are now working with content providers who have developed eLearning curricula. This arrangement may be convenient for ordering online courses. On the other hand, some districts do not have the necessary infrastructure to use ASPs or may not wish to tie up their internet connections with bandwidth-intensive course programming, preferring instead to store and host these applications on their own computer networks.

5. Educator input. Superior online course providers work extensively with current and former teachers to develop an appropriate curriculum. Educators should ask, “Who are the ‘experts’ who developed the courses?”

6. Monitoring and follow-up. It’s important to establish a timeframe for when the online course vendor will check back with you for a progress update. Administrators should know who performs the follow-up services and what kinds of adjustments can be made during the school year. They should ask themselves, “Will this company be in business in six months?”

7. Handicap access. Some courses are more handicapped-friendly than others; they can incorporate text readers for the blind, for example.

8. Price and pricing options. Price is always an issue. Some programs are priced per student, some are offered on a flat-fee basis. School officials need to think about their school’s likely level of use before purchasing.