Online learning continues to grow at a rapid pace, with 30 states—six more than last year—now offering state-led programs or initiatives, according to the latest report presented by the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL). But the group warns that more oversight of online learning programs is needed if this growth is to continue, and it urges administrators to make sure their online courses are equally accessible to all students.
“Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning” is the fourth in an annual series of reports assessing the virtual-schooling landscape. As of September 2007, the report says, 42 states have either supplemental or full-time online learning programs, or both—up from 38 states in 2006. What’s more, of the eight states that offer neither supplemental nor full-time online learning programs, several are in the planning stages for introducing online learning opportunities.
Forty percent of the online learning programs surveyed saw their enrollments grow by at least 25 percent last year, the report says—and half of these grew by at least 50 percent. K12 Inc., the largest operator of virtual schools across the country, filed for its initial public offering in late July and claims a 35-percent growth rate in enrollment over the last two years.
Yet, as online learning programs have continued to multiply, they’ve also been subjected to increased scrutiny.
“There has been increased scrutiny of online programs, particularly full-time programs, in a few states, and programs that do not adhere to [high-] quality standards risk creating a backlash that could impair all online programs,” the report says.
A key development in the last year has been the release of audits of full-time online programs by three states: Colorado, Idaho, and Kansas. Colorado’s audit in particular questioned the practices of several full-time online learning programs and the oversight capability of the Colorado Department of Education.
In response to these findings, the state board of education created a task force that made recommendations to lawmakers. Colorado legislators then passed a bill that made numerous changes to the state’s online education regulations. Among these are the creation of a division within the state education department to oversee online programs, the creation of standards to define the quality of online programs, and a requirement that all online programs report annually to the state.
Although most programs seem to offer high-quality options, a lack of transparency and data in many states—coupled with questionable practices from a few programs—could have a detrimental impact on online learning’s sustainability, the report warns.
“While each of the three states that conducted an audit has some state-specific issues, several general lessons for online programs emerge from the findings,” it says. “The primary lesson is the ongoing need for quality assurance of both courses and instruction—not only to ensure quality for students, but also to demonstrate quality to other stakeholders. It is likely that these audits are the beginning of greater scrutiny of online programs by states and policy makers. With greater analysis comes the opportunity to prove that online learning works, and to demonstrate how online programs are increasing educational opportunities for students across the country.”
The report recommends reviewing student achievement outcomes, student demographics, curriculum development procedures, teacher training, tracking of attendance and activity in the course, and special-education services.
While online learning programs should be held to high standards, the report is careful to emphasize that regulation should still allow for innovation.
By collecting data and allowing states to compare their information with other states, by distributing best practices with regard to online learning programs, and by working to set cross-state policies to ensure program quality, governments and organizations can help shape virtual-school regulation, it concludes.
Written by Evergreen Consulting, the report was funded by a collaboration of entities, including the Clark County School District, Connections Academy, Florida Virtual School, Illinois Virtual High School, Odyssey Charter Schools, Texas Education Agency, and Virtual High School.
Access and professional development
NACOL also issued two separate issue briefs that highlight the need to ensure equal access to online courses and high-quality professional development for online educators.
In “Access and Equity in Online Classes and Virtual Schools,” the group notes the importance of making online courses accessible to all students in order to meet schools’ legal obligations, and it outlines some of the ways to ensure accessibility.
Students taking online courses must have internet access. Yet, some students might have dial-up connections at home—and some might not have access to the internet outside of school or a public library.
“Public schools that operate educational programs available only through students’ own computers are not truly accessible,” the issue brief says. “Any virtual education program that operates in a public school has a responsibility to make the program available to students who don’t have their own computers, or who don’t have the bandwidth to make participation in the online programs reasonable.”
Online learning programs also need to make sure they accommodate different physical handicaps, such as audio or visual difficulties.
The brief identifies several actions that virtual-school programs can take to address equity and access issues, including using student demographic data to make needed program modifications, developing policies to make sure courses and educational materials are broadly accessible, and creating and publicizing a non-discrimination policy.
Online courses should meet Universal Design for Learning standards for accessibility, the brief says. That means video resources should be captioned or have a transcript available; text transcripts should be available for audio resources; alternative presentations must be identified for graphic presentations of instructional content; course and web page navigation should be designed to facilitate alternative navigation tools; and the use of graphics as “eye candy” should be minimized.
A second issue brief, titled “Professional Development for Virtual Schooling and Online Learning,” notes the importance of training teachers to teach in an online environment.
Online education, the brief asserts, has become widely accepted only within the last five years—and only a few programs that prepare new teachers have begun to include virtual schooling in their curricula.
The report addresses several myths that are common to online learning and professional development, including: (1) virtual schools and regular school counselors can handle the few participating students without leadership support; (2) any regular classroom teacher is already qualified to teach online; (3) any highly qualified face-to-face classroom teacher is ready to teach a high-quality online course that has been previously prepared; (4) virtual schooling will fit with regular school routines and practices, and a tech coordinator or counselor can provide any necessary professional development; and (5) newly qualified teachers who learn about virtual schooling in their pre-service programs will be ready to teach online when they graduate.
Virtual schools should recruit and develop faculty to provide ongoing professional development, the report says, and it recommends that all colleges and universities integrate virtual-school training into their pre-service programs for teachers.
Schools also should reach out to the growing number of online learning professional development resources. For example, Boise State University offers professional development for staff in collaborating virtual schools. The Florida Virtual School has training materials for school counselors and virtual school site facilitators, and it also offers a training program for its teachers. Iowa Learning Online has developed a course for its virtual school site facilitators.
The report also includes several curriculum resources for use in professional development, as well as resources developed for pre-service teacher education.