Report assesses K-12 online learning

Online learning is growing rapidly, but its continued growth will require specific policy and funding changes that focus on increasing educational choices and opportunities while ensuring high quality and improved student achievement, according to a new report.

"Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning," the fifth in an annual series of reports examining the online-learning landscape, debuted at the North American Council for Online Learning’s (NACOL’s) Virtual School Symposium on Oct. 27.  The report recommends several policies to increase online learning options for students.

Those policy recommendations include ensuring that students and parents are free to choose online courses and schools; encouraging schools of education to incorporate online instruction as part of the curriculum for future teachers; creating true national content standards so online content does not need to demonstrate alignment with countless different content frameworks; revising accounting standards for funding to get away from count dates, seat time, and other measures that don’t apply to the online environment; and establishing some standard metrics for basic quality assurance and measurements, such as consistent measures for course completions.

The report found that online learning continued to grow in the latter part of 2007 and the first half of 2008, in terms of both new programs and the enhancement of existing programs. Many states have passed new legislation to promote further growth in online learning, it says.

As of this fall, 44 states offer significant online learning opportunities for students.  Seventeen states offer significant supplemental and full-time online options for students, and many of those states have both a state-led program and full-time online schools. For example, Florida offers the supplemental Florida Virtual School and the full-time Florida Connections Academy and Florida Virtual Academy. Similarly, Colorado offers the state-led Colorado Online Learning program, as well as numerous full-time district programs and charter schools.

Twenty-three states offer significant supplemental opportunities but not full-time opportunities, and most have state-led programs, such as the Michigan Virtual School and the Illinois Virtual School. 

Four states offer significant full-time opportunities, but no supplemental programs; these states have extensive charter schools and/or district online programs, but do not offer a state-led supplemental program that makes courses available to students across the state.

Students in many states turn to state-led online learning programs or initiatives, and as of this fall, 34 states offered state-led programs or initiatives that are designed to work with existing school districts to supplement course offerings. Examples of these state-led programs–which provide full courses, teachers, and student support–include Kentucky Virtual School, Idaho Digital Learning Academy, and the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program. State-led initiatives that provide online resources or serve as a central clearinghouse for online courses include the Washington Digital Learning Commons and Wyoming Switchboard Network.

Because of the wide range of K-12 online offerings, and because all states offer at least some minor online learning opportunities, the report focuses on those that offer significant opportunities. "Significant," in this case, is viewed from a student’s perspective and is based on whether the student is likely to have access to opportunities if he or she, from anywhere in the state, is seeking a publicly funded online course or full-time online school. 

Factors that go into answering that question include whether online schools and programs exist in the state and what percentage of school districts have a student in an online course; if there are online opportunities available to students across the entire state; and if those opportunities are sufficiently large relative to the state’s population, or are prominent enough that most students are aware of the option to pursue online learning.

Most state-led programs focus on high school courses, with some including middle school courses, and are supplemental in that they provide courses to students who are already enrolled and receiving instruction elsewhere. These programs are funded by separate state appropriations, rather than on a per-pupil funding scale.

Many students turn to full-time online schools, and 21 states currently offer these types of schools. They are often charter schools, although some are non-charter, district-run programs available to students across the state.

Almost one-third of supplemental online learning programs reported a more-than-50-percent increase in the number of course registrations. Full-time online schools are growing as well, but much of the growth in the number of students attending full-time online schools comes from new schools, instead of the growth of existing schools.

While online learning has the potential to keep growing, the report notes that barriers still exist in many states. These barriers include student access to online courses, the willingness of schools to grant credit for online courses, and funding or other limiting policies.

The report notes that many states have had new policy developments related to online learning.

In Florida, the state legislature passed a new law requiring school districts to provide virtual learning programs "to make online and distance learning instruction available to full-time virtual students" in grades K-8 by 2009-10. Florida Virtual School continued its rapid growth, reaching more than 120,000 course registrations in 2007-08.

Alabama became the second state in the country, after Michigan, to create an online learning requirement, when the state board of education passed a resolution that "beginning with the ninth-grade class of 2009-10 … students shall be required to take and receive a passing grade in one online/technology-enhanced course in either a core course (mathematics, science, social studies, or English) or an elective, with waivers being possible for students with a justifiable reason."

Wisconsin gained national attention when an appeals court ruled in December 2007 that the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA) violated state laws and was not eligible for state funding. To prevent online charter schools across the state from being denied funding and closing, the legislature responded by enacting Act 222, which makes changes to the state’s charter school, open enrollment, and teacher licensing laws to allow virtual charter schools in Wisconsin to operate with public funding.

However, there have been a few exceptions to the pattern of what the report notes as consistent growth in online programs.

For instance, both Connecticut and Delaware established state-led online programs in the past year, but budget cuts did not allow either program to grow nearly as large or as quickly as planned. Both are going forward with online courses this fall, but with small numbers of students and courses. The experiences of the state-led programs in these states reflect concerns of such programs in other states that are dependent on yearly appropriations from the legislature and therefore also reliant on the health of state budgets and economies.

The report features specially authored sections on special education, evaluation, and international views as they relate to online learning, and it looks at key policy issues, such as student achievement and funding.

Student achievement, one important policy issue, is measured differently by supplemental and full-time programs.

Measuring student achievement is relatively simple for full-time online schools, because these schools are responsible for their students’ state assessment scores just as all public schools are. The full-time online schools also are typically subject to state reporting and accreditation requirements to the extent that such requirements exist in each state.

Some online schools often have a high percentage of at-risk or disadvantaged students, and certain state audits of online programs reported that the online schools had test scores below the state average. Comparisons against state averages can pose problems for schools that serve disadvantaged students, but the state audits and other reports don’t always delve into the types of students in specific schools.

Some states are beginning to measure student achievement based on growth models that track the year-to-year achievement of each individual student, instead of comparing this year’s test scores to the test scores of last year’s students. This approach to tracking student achievement is welcomed by many online school officials, who believe it better represents their work with a variety of students, the report says.

Most supplemental online programs are not responsible for a student’s state assessment scores, because the students are enrolled in another public school. Student achievement in these programs is therefore assessed by one or more of a set of metrics that include student grades in the class, course completion rates, and end-of-course tests (in the states that have such tests).

In most cases, the supplemental program reports a grade to the local school, which grants the credit. Therefore, the local school is, in effect, responsible for validating the quality of the course and the student’s achievement in that course.

The report also touches on key factors such as funding, how prevalent and appropriate online learning is for elementary school students, and access to online courses.

When it comes to instruction, the report says there is increasing recognition in both policy and practice that teaching online requires skills and experience that go beyond those needed for teaching in a classroom.

Most online schools have extensive professional development requirements for teachers, many of which combine face-to-face and online training. Some of these requirements are formal policies that are created by the state, such as the professional development requirements for teachers at the Georgia Virtual School. But most states still have no requirement for online teachers to be licensed or to receive professional development beyond what is required for all classroom teachers–though a few states are moving in this direction.

For example, the online-learning bill that Wisconsin passed in 2008 requires that as of July 1, 2010, a person teaching an online course in a public or charter school must have completed at least 30 hours of professional development designed to prepare a teacher for online teaching.

Hawaii’s 2008 online-learning law calls for developing and establishing "a mentoring and training program for online teachers, collaborating with the University of Hawaii department of educational technology as needed," and developing and establishing "an online training program to increase the number of highly qualified teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals."

Written by Evergreen Consulting Associates, the 2008 report is funded by the Connections Academy, Florida Virtual School, Illinois Virtual High School, Michigan Virtual School, NACOL, Pearson Education, the Texas Education Agency, Virtual High School, and the Wyoming Department of Education. 


Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning 2008

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Online Learning for High School Success resource center. Preventing high school dropouts has become a key focus of education stakeholders and government officials across the country, as the skills taught in high school are imperative to students’ success. But with online credit recovery programs and virtual learning becoming more accessible to more students, many are able to regain momentum and graduate with high school diplomas. Go to: Online Learning for High School Success

Laura Ascione

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