Growth of online instruction continues, though unevenly

Online education programs are now available to at least some K-12 students in 48 states and the District of Columbia.

Online instruction continues to grow quickly overall, according to the latest snapshot of online education programs in grades K-12. But the shape and pace of this growth remains uneven throughout the U.S., and two states—Delaware and New York—still don’t offer any opportunities for K-12 students to take classes online.

That’s according to the 2010 edition of “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning,” an annual review of the status of online instruction in the U.S., published by Evergreen Education Group. The latest “Keeping Pace” report says tight budgets, new policy developments, and changing technologies are accelerating the growth of online education programs in some states, while slowing their growth in others.

As of the report’s publication, online education programs were available to at least some K-12 students in 48 states and the District of Columbia, its authors said—but no state provides a full range of opportunities for online instruction, which the report defines as both supplemental and full-time options for students of all grade levels.

State-led online education programs now exist in 39 states, the report says, with Vermont and Montana having opened new programs that allow students to take at least some of their classes online in the last year. Alaska, too, has just begun the process of opening a statewide network for online instruction.

These state-led online programs had a combined 450,000 course enrollments during the 2009-10 school year, an increase of nearly 40 percent over the previous year. Yet just two states—Florida and North Carolina—combined to account for 96 percent of this growth, according to the report.

Full-time virtual schools now exist in at least 27 states and D.C., with Michigan and Massachusetts having approved virtual schools for this school year—though on a limited basis. Michigan will start with limited full-time enrollments in its two virtual schools, and Massachusetts has capped full-time online enrollment at 500 students for its statewide virtual school.

The fastest-growing segment of K-12 online instruction is made up of individual school districts that operate, or offer, online education programs for their students.

Because there are few reporting requirements for single-district online education programs, the number of students in these programs is hard to quantify, the report says—but it estimates that about 50 percent of all districts now offer some form of blended or online instruction.

Many large school systems have created or expanded online education programs in the last year, the report notes. This fall, the New York City school system is piloting online Advanced Placement, credit recovery, and blended-learning courses across the city, and Los Angeles opened a full-time virtual school. In August, the Chicago Public Schools announced a pilot program to add 90 minutes to the school day at 15 elementary schools using online courses.

Other notable developments in online instruction in 2010 include:

• Connecticut passed a law that allows online teachers to be certified in any state, instead of requiring them to hold a Connecticut certification. The law also required districts with a dropout rate of 8 percent or higher to establish an online credit recovery program by July 2010.

• Alabama passed a law that lets students earn credit based on mastery of skills instead of seat time. While the law doesn’t apply specifically to online education programs, it could have huge implications for online instruction, the report says.

• In Idaho, the state Board of Education approved new standards for online teachers, establishing 10 core standards for competency in online instruction.

• As of July 30, 2010, online teachers in Wisconsin must have completed 30 hours of professional development “designed to prepare a teacher for online teaching,” based on the online teaching standards created by the International Association of K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

Despite the rapid growth of both blended and online instruction, policy and access barriers continue to hold back the creation of new online education programs in many states, the report says.

Funding, too, is an issue. For instance, the report notes that Delaware had operated a statewide virtual school for 18 months, but the project lost its funding after the 2008-09 school year, and there are no longer any major opportunities for online instruction in the state.

A separate report from the U.S. Distance Learning Association, released earlier this month, cited accreditation rules, teacher licensing requirements, and other policies as barriers to the continued growth of online instruction. The USDLA report also called for more broadband deployment to ensure that students can take advantage of online instruction wherever they live.

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