Don’t look now, but online learning–though still in its infancy–is well on its way to becoming a major part of state-sponsored education across the country.

That’s the impression left by a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), whose member states have long been in the forefront of developing government initiatives in virtual schooling.

The 112-page report, which is being released today in advance of next week’s annual meeting of the SREB’s Educational Technology Cooperative, provides state-by-state details on the scope, financing, enrollment, curriculum, teacher preparation, and other aspects of government-supported virtual schools throughout the South.

A copy of the Report on SREB State Virtual Schools, which is based on an online survey conducted last spring, will be available at the SREB’s web site (www.sreb.org).

With 14 of the SREB’s 16 member states overseeing online schools and the remaining two members preparing to follow suit soon, the southern region can point to having more statewide or state-led virtual-school programs than all other regions of the country combined.

In addition to SREB members, 13 states have established online schools, according to the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), a foundation-backed group that was founded four years ago to expand and enhance K-12 online learning.

One relatively new program reported by the SREB is Alabama’s ACCESS Distance Learning, which began delivering online classes throughout the state in June 2006. With total revenue of $11.3 million for the past school year, the program had about 174 participating high schools and three support centers that recruited teachers, monitored courses, and otherwise helped schools and students.

In another recent launch, South Carolina’s state education department has been developing a virtual-school pilot project since May 2006 in collaboration with 11 school districts that already had experience with online courses. Funds for the first year came to $380,000. About 1,900 students participated in 2006-07. In response to a survey question about why students were taking online courses, the department cited factors that are fairly common among other states: no equivalent courses in the students’ schools, for example, as well as scheduling conflicts, remedial needs, and graduation requirements.

Meanwhile, the statewide Florida Virtual School, a national leader in online learning, had state appropriations this past school year of about $50 million and some 54,000 participating students. (Click here for more information about Florida’s program).

Bill Thomas, the SREB’s ed-tech director, notes that online-school enrollments in the South have grown every year since the Educational Technology Cooperative was established about seven years ago. One reason, he says, is that state legislators and governors have come to "understand the potential of online learning." He says they know that it offers opportunities to "do what hasn’t been done in any other way."

Thomas adds that virtual-school enrollments in SREB states this past year totaled nearly 200,000, an increase of at least 25 percent. But even more important than the numbers, he says, is growing interest in the quality and accountability of online programs.

He also cites SREB survey results indicating that some of the online programs already under way are offering such an "incredible" range of courses that they fairly rival the curriculum typically offered by a large urban high school. The SREB report lists the online courses offered in each state during the past school year. They include everything from core courses in English, math, science, and social studies to Advanced Placement courses, foreign languages, technical studies, remedial courses, music, art, journalism, and health–and that’s just scratching the surface.

NACOL’s president and CEO, Susan Patrick, says it’s only a matter of time–and not much time, at that–before virtually all American students are participating in online offerings "as a normal part of their curriculum."

"It’s going to go mainstream in 10 years," Patrick says, explaining that students who have grown up with the internet have been demanding more and more choices in their education, including online programs, and have been seeking increasingly rigorous courses as well.

Patrick, who sees her organization as a kind of national counterpart to the SREB, acknowledges that education officials and political leaders face at least two big hurdles–a need for more funds and a shortage of teachers who are well qualified to provide online instruction–but she’s confident that the challenges will be overcome.

Referring to recent conversations she has had with members of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Patrick says officials whose jurisdictions have yet to join the online bandwagon are eager to do so. "They’re coming on quickly," she says. "The states are ramping up."

In some states, Patrick says, the motivation is partly to "keep up with the Joneses." But she says many state school leaders are also interested in learning what other states, such as those belonging to the SREB, are doing–so they don’t have to "re-create the wheel."

Besides Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina, SREB states that have already established online schools–mainly, at this point, for students in the middle grades and in high school–are Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. In addition, officials in Delaware are planning to start a state virtual school in about a year, while legislators in Texas have passed a law to establish a virtual school network.

Elsewhere in the country, state online schools have been established in California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Links:

The Southern Regional Education Board

SREB Educational Technology Cooperative

North American Council for Online Learning