John Watson, founder of Evergreen Education Group and lead author of the “Keeping Pace” report, noted that both the district and consortium trends are being driven by districts recognizing that they want to offer online and blended learning courses, for any of a variety of reasons.

“More and more districts are identifying real educational needs that can be met by online and blended courses, including increasing access to a wider variety of courses, increasing personalization of instruction, and the need to ensure students gain 21st-century skills,” he said.

These relatively new consortium and single-district programs are just two of five separate online learning categories analyzed in the report. The other categories are state virtual schools (serving students statewide with supplemental online courses) and state-led online learning initiatives (serving schools statewide with content and/or resources); full-time, multi-district online schools that deliver a complete public education to their students; and post-secondary programs that are delivered in partnership with public school districts and offered at no cost to students.

In addition to the consortium and single-district blended learning program trends, 2011 “Keeping Pace” report also points to four other key implementation trends in K-12 online education programs in 2011:

  • Full-time virtual schools continued to grow.
  • State virtual schools are diverging into two tiers: those with significant impact and those without, depending on their commitment to funding at the state level. States seeing real growth include Florida, North Carolina. Michigan, Montana, Idaho, and Alabama; those on the decline include Maryland, Missouri, and California.
  • More than 16 states passed online learning laws.
  • Common Core Standards and open educational resources began to take hold.

On the policy front, “Keeping Pace” points to the ongoing struggles that educators and public officials faced in 2011 to determine the most effective measures to assess the efficacy of online education programs—and to use these measures to develop improved accountability systems for them. For Watson, the answer is more “data mining” than “research.”