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” 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 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.”

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 teachers in high-need subject areas, 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.

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.

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.

“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,” Patrick said. For example, online courses put a heavy emphasis on writing skills; if students turn in less-than-satisfactory written work, online instructors often will work with them on draft after draft until they 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 resource 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.

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.