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 last fall. 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.”

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 last 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.

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 misconceptions by focusing on collaboration, advocacy, and research. The group has teamed up with the Consortium for School Networking, the International Society for Technology in Education, the National Education Association, Microsoft, Apple, and other allies to develop a list of criteria stakeholders can use to find and evaluate highly qualified virtual instructors.

NACOL also is working with the National Science Teachers Association and other curriculum-oriented groups to build an international repository of best practices and high-quality online K-12 courses. According to Stroud, the idea is to share information that will improve the quality and standards of online programs.

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.

See this related link:

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