Educators and education stakeholders interested in online learning have a brand-new resource at their disposal. The North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) has released a free, comprehensive guide to online learning intended to help school leaders implement virtual education programs of their own and help parents understand how online instruction works. "A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning" gives answers to common questions and provides facts about online learning.

The report answers questions such as what an online course looks like, how students will interact with their teacher, and whether online instruction really works. (The short answer: Yes, if done correctly.) It also addresses issues for educators and policy makers who are considering developing their own online learning initiatives, such as what courses can be taught online effectively, what qualifications and training teachers will need, and what policies states or school districts should have in place before starting an online learning program.

"More than 700,000 K-12 students are already learning online. Educators, policy makers, and parents recognize the benefits of providing new opportunities through high-quality online courses that students can access from anywhere, 24-7," said Susan Patrick, NACOL’s president and chief executive.

"Yet, despite this growing interest, there are few resources for parents or educators to answer basic questions about online learning. The ‘Primer’ will serve as a tool for parents seeking the best educational opportunities for their children, and for school leaders and policy makers who must understand the essential elements of online learning in order to make informed decisions about implementing these programs," Patrick said.

She explained: "We get so many phone calls every day from legislators, school board members, parents, and teachers, asking the same questions … We thought we should put this in writing, so we can help people understand [online learning] a little bit better."

Teachers are essential to the success of any online learning program, Patrick said, adding: "Nothing is more important to the quality of an online course."

One key feature of the report, Patrick said, is that it lays out different models for online instruction. For example, some teachers might teach online classes full-time, whereas others might teach in a classroom and use free periods to teach an online course.

Online learning can help meet the demand for talented math and science teachers in particular, she said, noting the shortage of highly qualified math and science teachers who are needed to help today’s students succeed in a global economy.

By the end of 2006, 38 states had established state-led online learning programs, policies regulating online learning, or both, according to NACOL. Of these, 25 states have state-led online learning programs. The number of students taking one or more online courses has grown rapidly, the group adds, with annual growth rates in individual programs—and in some states—consistently in the range of 15 percent to 50 percent over multiple years.

Recommendations contained in NACOL’s new primer include funding online learning programs based on educational attainment instead of seat time; progressing students based on outcomes instead of social promotion; and enhancing the use of data throughout education.

"Data are increasingly at the center of education management and policy decisions. Online learning provides an inherent advantage over traditional classrooms in the amount and quality of data that are available through the learning management system: discussions, questions, assessments, time online, progression through and mastery of course material, and numerous other data points typically captured by the software. The information management capacity of online programs is often well ahead of state information systems," the primer says.

The guidebook also addresses some misconceptions that the public might have about online learning, such as the idea that online learning is essentially "teacherless" and that students are isolated and lose out on important social skills.

Other misconceptions include the myth that online teaching and learning is easier—an idea Patrick says isn’t necessarily true.

"It’s a lot of work, and students who take online courses are often surprised to find out how much harder and rigorous they are," she said. For instance, online courses usually put a heavy emphasis on writing skills; both teachers and students need to have excellent written communication, Patrick said. If students turn in less-than-satisfactory written work, online course instructors will work with them on draft after draft not only until the assignments are satisfactory, but also until the students have truly learned how to improve their skills.

Another misconception is that online courses are easy to pass and make it easy for students to cheat.

Online teachers get a better sense of each student’s voice through all the written assignments, and that helps to counteract academic dishonesty, according to the primer.

The primer includes a case study of Ohio’s online learning program, called eCommunity Schools, and discusses the state legislature’s efforts to put in place measures to ensure academic quality in the eCommunity Schools.

A project of NACOL, the guidebook was written by Evergreen Consulting Associates. Financial support was provided by grants from NACOL and Connections Academy, a national provider of K-12 virtual public schools operated in partnership with charter schools and school districts.

Links:

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

"A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning"
http://www.nacol.org/docs/national_report.pdf

Evergreen Consulting Associates
http://www.evergreenassoc.com/

Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.com/