K-12 Online and Blended Learning Headed in Different Directions, New Study Shows

New research shows that K-12 online and blended learning evolved in new directions in 2011, with the rise and rapid growth of new consortium and single-district programs outstripping the continued expansion of more traditional elearning programs. This trend and other K-12 online and blended learning developments are revealed in the new report, 2011 Keeping Pace with Online K-12 Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice, from the Evergreen Education Group. Keeping Pace was unveiled today at the 2011 Virtual School Symposium hosted by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

Now in its eighth year, Keeping Pace tracks the latest developments in K-12 online learning policy and practice, including student enrollments, online program counts and other implementation metrics. In addition, the study provides policy profiles on each of the 50 states, and also rates them in six categories of online learning: full-time and supplemental online options for high school, middle school and elementary school students. Finally, Keeping Pace identifies key implementation and policy trends in both online and blended learning. The complete Keeping Pace with Online K-12 Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice can be found online at http://kpk12.com.

As of late 2011, online and blended learning opportunities exist for at least some students in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, but no state has a full suite of full-time and supplemental options for students at all grade levels. 30 states now have full-time, multi-district schools that enrolled an estimated 250,000 students in the 2010-2011 academic year, a 25 percent increase over the previous year. 40 states had a state virtual school or similar state-led initiative in the 2010-2011 school year, delivering 536,000 course enrollments (one student taking one semester course), a rise of 19% over the prior year.

However, 2011 Keeping Pace 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 consortium programs and single-district programs are expanding even more rapidly, as is the range of private providers competing to work with districts. In fact, single-district programs–usually blended 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% of districts nationwide have at least one student taking an online course. Riverside (CA), Plano (TX), Broward (FL) and Chicago are among the major single-district programs offering courses in 2011.

John Watson, founder of Evergreen Education Group and lead author of Keeping Pace, says that both the district and new consortium trends are being driven by districts recognizing that they want to offer online and blended 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.”

These relatively new consortium and single-district programs are just two of five separate categories of online learning analyzed in 2011 Keeping Pace. Other online learning categories evaluated in the report include: 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 program trends, 2011 Keeping Pace also points to four other key implementation trends in K-12 online learning in 2011:

  • Full-time virtual schools continued to grow
  • State virtual schools diverged into two tiers
  • More than 16 states passed online learning laws
  • Common Core Standards and open educational resources began to take hold

“2011 was in many ways a watershed year for K-12 online learning in this country,” observed Susan Patrick, president and chief executive officer of iNACOL. “Over 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 learning programs being made available to students in 2011.”

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 learning 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 notes, 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.”