During 2011, online and blended learning programs took root in many schools around the country.

K-12 online and blended learning continued to grow rapidly across the country in 2011 as new consortia and single-district online education programs outstripped the continued expansion of more traditional eLearning programs, according to an annual report that measures the growth of K-12 virtual education.

2011 Keeping Pace with Online K-12 Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice,” from the Evergreen Education Group, was unveiled Nov. 9 at the 2011 Virtual School Symposium hosted by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

As of late 2011, online and blended learning opportunities existed for at least some students in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, but no state had a full suite of full-time and supplemental options for students at all grade levels.

Thirty states now have full-time, multi-district schools that enrolled an estimated 250,000 students in the 2010-11 academic year—a 25-percent increase in enrollment over the previous year. Forty states had a state virtual school or similar state-led initiative in the 2010-11 school year, delivering 536,000 course enrollments (one student taking one semester course), a rise of 19 percent over the prior year.

“2011 was in many ways a watershed year for K-12 online learning in this country,” said Susan Patrick, president and chief executive officer of iNACOL. “Over the past year, online and blended learning programs took root in classrooms around the country. We’re encouraged by the rapid growth we saw in the number and variety of online [education] programs being made available to students in 2011.”

The report reveals that while these now-familiar and important segments of the K-12 online learning field have continued to grow, relatively new forms—such as online learning consortia and single-district programs—are expanding even more rapidly, as is the range of private eLearning providers competing to work with districts.

In fact, single-district programs, which are usually blended learning models that combine face-to-face and online instruction, are the fastest growing segment of online and blended learning programs. Though data on these programs is unavailable at the state level, published reports and unpublished research suggest fully 50 percent of districts nationwide have at least one student taking an online course. Riverside, Calif.; Plano, Texas; Broward County, Fla.; and Chicago are among the major single-district programs offering online courses in 2011.

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.”

“Online and blended schools have provided more than a decade’s worth of evidence to suggest that teaching and learning online can work,” Watson said, citing research from Dr. Rick Ferdig of Kent State University. “So, instead of asking, ‘Does online learning work?’ we need to ask, ‘Under what circumstances does online learning work?’ Then, all stakeholders need to work together to develop and support measurement vehicles that reflect and reward ‘what works.’ The last step is to acknowledge the limitations of applying our current accountability systems to online learning programs and develop new, more effective models that employ the best possible measurement tools.”

International trends

iNACOL also released a study examining online and blended learning programs around the globe.

Online and Blended Learning: A Survey of Policy and Practice of K-12 Schools Around the World” found that nearly 60 percent of the more than 60 countries included in the study reported government funding for blended learning or full-time online education programs at the primary and secondary levels. Teacher training for online learning is currently required in 25 percent of the countries surveyed.

Other results include:

  • China’s first online school was created in 1996; today, it has expanded to more than 200 online schools with enrollments exceeding 600,000 students.
  • Seventy-two percent of the surveyed countries reported that their online and blended learning teachers participated in professional development for online teaching.
  • Universities and colleges were reported as the primary source of training for educators, followed by regional centers and local schools.
  • In British Columbia, online schools provide complete programs or individual courses to 71,000 students, which is about 12 percent of the student population.
  • In 2010, Hong Kong enacted a policy recommendation for digital learning that “debundled” textbooks and teaching materials to make them more affordable and accessible to schools, and accelerated the development of an online depository of curriculum-based learning and teaching resources. A pilot project later resulted in a program made available to all 410,000 primary and secondary students in 300,000 low-income families—especially the 8 percent without internet access at home—to gain access to the internet for the purpose of learning.