Reports reveal online learning’s successes, needs

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.


Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning

Access and Equity in Online Classes and Virtual Schools

Professional Development for Virtual Schooling and Online Learning



Public television station WGBH opens its vault to educators

Educators who want to engage their students and add sizzle to their lessons by using video clips and interview transcripts can turn to “Open Vault,” a new web site launched by Boston-based public television station WGBH. The site features video clips and interviews from WGBH programming created between 1968 and 1993, including clips of Muhammad Ali discussing his refusal to fight in Vietnam, African American students arriving at school during Boston’s court-ordered desegregation, and Robert McNamara reading from a letter sent by Nikita Khrushchev to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Open Vault includes more than 500 streaming video clips and more than 1,000 interview transcripts in all. Users can search by keyword or browse by topic (arts, business, education, humanities, Massachusetts, science and technology, and social science) and can view data alphabetically by person and by series. In addition, resource management tools allow educators to annotate and tag records, create topical lists, and send information to students for further study or classroom discussion.


Oracle Education Foundation honors outstanding students

More than 50 students from seven countries, along with their coaches and parents, met in San Francisco for ThinkQuest Live 2007. This event, sponsored by the Oracle Education Foundation, is a weeklong celebration of the students’ accomplishments, expertise and skill in winning the ThinkQuest International web site building competition. The attending youth represented the first, second, third, Global Perspectives, and TRIO Special Recognition Award teams from the 2007 competition cycle. As part of their prize, the students took part in a series of learning and recreational programs and were guests-of-honor at an awards banquet, where they were be honored by the foundation’s Board of Directors and Oracle executives.


Knight Foundation awards $500,000 to Philadelphia high schools

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded $500,000 in grants to the School District of Philadelphia and Prime Movers at George Washington University to create journalism clubs in 24 Philadelphia public high schools. The program, called Prime Movers/Philadelphia, is a new national model to help restore student journalism to America‘s schools and will mark the largest and quickest expansion of media clubs in the history of the school district. The Prime Movers/ Philadelphia journalism program, which will be part of the high schools’ after school offerings, will bring professional journalists from Philadelphia newspaper, radio, and television companies, and Temple University journalism interns, into the high schools. They will assist in teaching journalism fundamentals and civic engagement and help students use those skills to tell stories of their schools and communities.


NSF awards $200,000 to Computer Science Teachers Association

The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) has received a $200,000 award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). CSTA will use the NSF award to identify local educational leaders who will work with the organization to improve the quality of computer science education at the state level. In addition to identifying and working with local leaders and established statewide organizations that concentrate on improving computer science, these funds will allow CSTA to develop a toolkit to aid communication among teachers and schools, administrators, policymakers, business and industry leaders. CSTA will also help facilitate mentoring relationships between K-12 leaders and post-secondary computer science faculty. CSTA is also planning a 3-day leadership conference for summer 2008 that will convene people from more than 38 states. These leaders will address CS standards, certification, professional development, partnerships, and ways to build local chapters.


Motorola Foundation grants $3.5M for next generation of inventors

The Motorola Foundation announced the recipients of its Innovation Generation Grants, a $3.5 million educational technology grants initiative to inspire young people to embrace science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The 2007 Innovation Generation Grants support 106 breakthrough programs that use innovative approaches to develop interest in technology-related fields while strengthening leadership and problem-solving skills. The grants target programs that encourage girls and ethnic groups currently underrepresented in technology fields. The programs supported by the Innovation Generation Grants range from after-school and summer science enrichment programs to activities that promote innovative technology use and teacher-training initiatives.


Reading turns new chapter in the digital age

Is reading at risk? Or is there a “new literacy” emerging that can’t be measured by traditional testing tools and standards? That debate is sure to flare anew today among literacy experts, teachers, multimedia whiz kids, and good old-fashioned book lovers as the National Endowment for the Arts lays out a study that sounds the alarm about the dire state of reading in our culture, reports the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune…

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Feds want higher seat backs for school buses

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters on Nov. 19 proposed new rules to improve the safety of school bus seats and expand the use of shoulder belts, but she declined to order that all new buses include seat belts, the Associated Press reports. Peters said she wants to increase the height of seat backs on all school buses from 20 inches to 24 inches to help protect children during accidents. She also proposed a new requirement for short school buses to begin using shoulder straps. For longer buses, she proposed giving states the option of using federal highway safety funds to purchase new buses with seat belts–but she didn’t promise that any new money would be added to those funds to help cover the costs…

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English, algebra, phys ed … and biotech?

Some public high schools are giving students lab experiences that approach, or even exceed, those found in university settings, reports the New York Times. And some teachers see an economic payoff in all of this. Biotechnology, for example, remains a promising field, and companies in the industry have less math-intensive demands than electronics and computing employers. As a result, biotech is emerging as a popular field with high school students…

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CoSN launches small district technology leadership wiki

Washington, DC – November 16, 2007 CoSN today announced the launch of the Small School District Technology Leadership wiki, which was created with support from the National Technology Activities contract with the U.S. Department of Education. The wiki will help with systematic planning at the local level for district- and school-based technologies. The objective of this project is to develop a set of resources that fit the needs of small school districts, those with student populations of 2,500 or less. Of the over 14,000 school districts in the United States, nearly seventy-five percent of them have student populations of less than 2,500.

"CoSN recognizes that technology leadership concerns and needs of small districts are typically impacted by a different set of resource, personnel and even expertise constraints than are experienced in larger or medium-sized districts," said CEO of CoSN Keith Krueger. "The content found on the CoSN wiki may prove useful for any district but is particularly focused on the specific needs and challenges of small school districts."

All of the content and resources are mapped to the nine skill areas defined in CoSN’s published monograph, "What It Takes: Essential Skills of the K-12 CTO". While the job title may not always be Chief Technology Officer (CTO), this title is used generically to refer to the main person or, as is often true in small districts, the main people responsible for technology leadership and decision making in the school system.

The idea behind CoSN’s Small School District Technology Leadership wiki is that school technology leaders in small school districts are not only able to access and make use of resources provided by CoSN and other sources, but are additionally able – and encouraged – to contribute to the site by adding their own best practices, tips, strategies, case studies and resources. They are also encouraged to start or contribute to discussions taking place on the wiki.

If you’ve never used a wiki before, don’t worry! Wikis are actually very easy to use, and online help pages are available if needed. Small school district technology leaders can stay informed about current content of interest by using the "watch" tab at the top of any wiki-page. This will produce a watchlist of pages they want to track.

To start accessing resources, best practices, case studies and more on the CoSN Small School District Technology Leadership wiki, just go to

About the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)

CoSN is the country’s premier voice in education technology leadership, serving K-12 technology leaders who through their strategic use of technology improve teaching and learning. CoSN provides products and services to support and nurture leadership development, advocacy, coalition building, and awareness of emerging technologies.

CoSN leadership initiatives include: Using Technology to Raise the Achievement of ALL Students (; Cyber Security for the Digital District (; Data-Driven Decision-Making (; K-12 Open Technologies (; Taking Total Cost of Ownership to the Classroom (; Value of Investment (; and the development of the Council of School District Chief Technology Officers (CTO Council).

CoSN’s membership includes a unique blend of education and technology leaders, policy makers, and influencers from the public and private sectors. Our audience includes key technology leaders (often called Chief Technology Officers–CTOs) in leading-edge states and districts, policy makers, private sector leaders, as well as those technology leaders who wish to accelerate their districts’ or states’ systemic technology use. Visit or phone 866.267.8747 to find out more about CoSN’s programs and activities supporting leadership development to ensure that information technology has a direct and positive impact on student learning in elementary and secondary schools.