More than 40 percent of students now designate online classes as an essential component of their learning experience.

In just three years, the number of high school students who have access to online learning has tripled, while twice as many middle school students are now learning online, according to a new report.

These figures come from the nonprofit group Project Tomorrow and its most recent Speak Up survey on school technology use. Project Tomorrow first released data from its this survey earlier this spring, but the organization has teamed up with learning management system provider Blackboard Inc. to dig deeper into the results that pertain to online learning.

Project Tomorrow and Blackboard issued a report on these findings during the International Society for Technology in Education’s annual conference June 28.

More than 40 percent of students now designate online classes as an essential component of their learning experience, with administrators and parents also becoming more supportive of this vision, the report says. In two years’ time, 39 percent more administrators and five times as many parents have incorporated online classes into their vision for the ultimate school.

While support for online learning has grown, so, too, has the untapped student demand for online learning as part of their ultimate school. One-third of middle and high school students say they are interested in taking an online course but have not yet, and 30 percent of third through fifth grade students say they’d like to take an online course, according to the survey.

“Online learning is transformative. We are just starting to see a generation rising through middle schools that demand online learning and have a clear insight into how it can change the future of education,” said Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow. “These students are moving online learning beyond the basic learning paradigm and taking ownership in their learning process—creating an engaging, personalized, and collaborative learning environment.”

The online-learning report is called “Learning in the 21st Century: 2011 Trends Update.” It’s based on results from the 2010 Speak Up survey, which captured the views about online education and 21st-century learning of more than 379,000 K-12 students, parents, educators, and college students enrolled in teacher preparation programs in the United States.

“Online learning will continue to impact student motivation for learning,” said a Delaware County, Pa., administrator who participated in the study. “I believe collaboration tools will have the greatest impact on student achievement. Web 2.0 tools will benefit students as they contribute content and become more confident in their writing ability, in their ability to offer their own opinions, and their ability to communicate and collaborate.”

Students aren’t the only ones learning online, the report notes: 50 percent of librarians and 27 percent of teachers have participated in fully online professional development classes or workshops, and 36 percent of administrators have experienced online learning as part of their professional tasks. What’s more, one-third of teachers would like to see their districts offer more online professional development, and an emerging cohort of teachers (14 percent) would like to leverage blogs and wikis to share best practices with their peers.

As administrators and teachers become more comfortable with online learning through experience, the barriers to learning have shifted beyond funding concerns. Almost a third of administrators are now concerned about the quality of the student-teacher interaction online, and 28 percent cite creating online courses that are academically rigorous as a barrier. Administrators also are more concerned with evaluating the quality of online courses, which represents a more sophisticated understanding of what it takes to be successful with online learning, Project Tomorrow says.

For the first time, the survey looked into what might motivate teachers to teach an online course and found flexibility, compensation, and access to technology tools as key influencers. As districts investigate how to meet the increased demands for online learning, the survey found that the key audience for strategic recruitment is teachers with fewer than 10 years of experience who value online learning for their own professional development and explicitly express an interest in learning about online teaching.

“Online learning continues to propel forward each year, and we are extremely excited to be part of the process,” said John Canuel, K-12 practice leader at Blackboard. “Every day we see schools and districts across the U.S. creating new learning environments that engage students with emerging technologies such as mobile learning, online learning, and digital content. As the learning process is personalized, students are empowered to explore knowledge with an unfettered type of curiosity that is too often missing from traditional classroom settings.”