Proponents of online learning have a new champion. The North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL)–organized by administrators and operators of some of North America’s leading virtual schools and online-learning programs–is up and running in Washington, D.C.

Timothy K. Stroud–a former Fairfax County, Va., high school teacher, education issues adviser for the American Federation of Teachers, and special assistant to Clinton Administration Education Secretary Richard Riley–assumed command of NACOL in September. The organization is underwritten by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Online teaching and learning has the potential to transform education,” declares NACOL’s vision statement. “We are dedicated to fostering a learning landscape that promotes student success and lifelong learning.” NACOL, according to its mission statement, will “increase educational opportunities and enhance learning by providing collegial expertise and leadership in K-12 online teaching and learning.”

The organization, says Stroud, aims to facilitate dialog among educators, business leaders, and state and federal policy makers in hopes of lending some credibility to an online-learning movement still experiencing some growing pains.

The number of K-12 students enrolled in online courses is rising, but questions remain over how much to fund certain projects, who should provide the instruction–and who should foot the bill.

Increasingly acrimonious disputes have arisen over funding for online-learning programs. Funding fights have broken out most notably in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Idaho as traditional brick-and-mortar schools seek to protect their funding sources and virtual schools seek to obtain new or increased funding, sometimes competing for the same school dollars. These controversies have reached their hottest levels when they involve charter schools operated by for-profit companies.

As eSchool News reported earlier this year, teacher unions in Minnesota and Wisconsin have filed lawsuits to block online charter schools from operating in those states. Operators of an online charter school in Idaho had petitioned the state for more funding, saying the per-pupil expenditure that Idaho allows for virtual schooling is inadequate; and Florida’s top financial officer was examining the state’s contract with two companies running virtual schools for possible violations of state law. (See “Funding controversies hammer virtual schools,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4729.)

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers to these dilemmas, says NACOL’s Stroud, who believes the first step toward reaching a consensus is to establish a research base stakeholders can turn to when considering which online models to pursue.

A number of school districts have engaged for-profit companies such as Virginia-based K12 Inc., the brainchild of former Reagan Administration Education Secretary William Bennett, and Baltimore-based Connections Academy to run charter schools boasting a full curriculum of online courses, but other districts have state-run virtual schools they can turn to, such as those in Kentucky and West Virginia, which offer online courses in rural areas where traditional instructional options are limited by geography and sparse population.

Differences in virtual schooling models aside, Stroud believes the key to running a successful online operation lies in picking the solution that best matches the needs of each school system. To do that, he said, educators first must see beyond the myths associated with online learning. Because of the medium through which it is provided, Stroud acknowledges that a number of skeptics still see virtual education as a solitary affair offering little interaction between students and highly qualified teachers.

NACOL, he said, hopes to help dispel those and other misconceptions by focusing on collaboration, advocacy, and research conducted around virtual K-12 learning. “NACOL is really the Switzerland of online education,” Stroud said. “It’s a safe place for people to come together and have these types of conversations.”

Not that the outfit is all talk. Already the group has linked up with the Consortium for School Networking, the International Society for Technology in Education, the National Education Association (NEA), Microsoft, Apple, and other allies on the business and ed-tech advocacy fronts to develop a list of criteria stakeholders can use to find and evaluate highly qualified virtual instructors. NACOL plans to offer its recommendations in conjunction with the NEA’s recent “Guide to Online High School Courses” as a broad set of guidelines for educators to follow, Stroud said.

NACOL also is working with the National Science Teachers Association and other curriculum-oriented associations to build an international repository of effective learning objects, including best practices and high-quality online courses for schools. According to Stroud, the idea is to share information that will improve the quality and standards of online programs, while exploring opportunities for continued research into the operation of virtual K-12 institutions. “There is a rather long list of research projects that need to be put it place to build up credibility,” Stroud said. Assessment is another issue. With its headquarters in Washington, NACOL is well positioned to work with the U.S. Department of Education to establish ways in which virtual education can help schools–especially those in remote areas–meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In fact, the group already has weighed in on the National Education Technology Plan, which Stroud contends will outline “the next steps” in virtual learning.

But while having a presence in Washington is important, Stroud said the majority of the work needs to be done at the state level, where policy makers are responsible for deciding how to approach online learning locally. Each situation is unique. Though NACOL doesn’t intend for virtual learning to become the de facto standard in American public education, Stroud believes there can be a healthy blend between traditional and online courses. “It really just provides another option for kids,” he said of online instruction. And options are important, especially given the requirements of NCLB, which demand student achievement regardless of a child’s preference or learning style.

The council also is looking into providing additional guidance and research related to bettering professional development opportunities for online educators, Stroud said.

Julie Young, a NACOL board member and chief executive officer at the Florida Virtual School, a supplementary online program with an enrollment of more than 10,000 students, said a common voice among K-12 virtual educators is essential to the movement’s continued success.

“There needed to be a meeting of the minds and some coming together … for the industry itself to obtain credibility,” Young said. Though many groups claim to have the best interest of schools and teachers at heart, this marks the first time an organization has formed to narrow the focus to K-12 virtual learners specifically, she said.

Young said she especially likes the idea of building a repository to share best practices and common ideals. But she added that NACOL was not formed with the intention of casting a one-size-fits-all mold for virtual schools.

“[NACOL was] not designed to be a governing body for the industry,” she said. “The fact that everyone is doing something different is not necessarily a bad thing.” Rather, Young suggested the group could provide guidelines and advocacy for all forms of online learning, from supplementary classes to full-fledged K-12 institutions.

Links:

North American Council for Online Learning
http://www.nacol.org

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net

K12 Inc.
http://www.k12.com

Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.com