Online learning offers a lifeline–especially for rural schools, according to a recent study that also predicts “blended learning” could be the way most students learn in the future.

The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) study, called “K-12 Online Learning,” is a follow-up to the group’s 2007 report, which was one of the first studies to collect data about online and blended learning in K-12 schools. The new study, released in January, is based on information gathered from more than 800 U.S. school systems during the 2007-08 academic year.

According to the study, three-quarters of responding school districts had at least one student enrolled in a fully online or blended course, an increase of about 10 percentage points from the group’s earlier study. (“Blended” courses employ both online and face-to-face instruction.)

The total number of K-12 students taking online or blended courses in 2007-08 was estimated at 1,030,000–up from 700,000 in the earlier study–and two-thirds of respondents said they expect their online enrollments will continue to grow.

Online learning has developed differently in K-12 schools than it has in higher education, the report noted.

At colleges and universities, online learning has grown much more rapidly, as these institutions have invested significant dollars in developing and delivering their own online courses and degree programs.

K-12 schools, on the other hand, have “approached online learning with caution,” the report says. “Rather than investing resources in developing their own delivery support structure, they typically depend on a number of outside online learning providers, including postsecondary institutions, independent vendors, and state virtual schools.”

What’s more, most school districts (83 percent) said they use multiple online-learning providers rather than contracting with a single provider.