K-12 online learning is growing rapidly and evolving in many different directions. As it evolves it ismerging with face-to-face instruction, and the result, blended learning, is likely the fastest-growingsegment in online learning. Other ways in which online and blended learning are evolving mixonline instruction with other elements of educational technology. Instruction may be entirelyclassroom-based, but use computers, the Internet, and other technologies to enhance learning.Keeping Pace 2010 explores many of these trends, but uses online learning—which we deﬁne asteacher-led instruction that takes place over the Internet, with the teacher and student separatedgeographically—as the starting point.2Many terms and deﬁnitions in the ﬁeld, such as online learning, blended learning, hybrid learning,elearning, virtual schools, and cyberschools, do not have commonly understood deﬁnitions.Online learning is instruction via a web-based educational delivery system that includes softwareto provide a structured learning environment. It enhances and expands educational opportunities,and may be synchronous (communication in which participants interact in real time such asvideoconferencing) or asynchronous (communication that is separated by time such as email oronline discussion forums). It may be accessed from multiple settings (in school and/or out ofschool buildings). Blended learning combines online learning with other modes of instructionaldelivery.One of the misconceptions about learning online is that online courses consist mostly of readingon a computer screen. While this may be true of a few online programs, in most online coursesthere is a high degree of communication and interaction between teachers and students. In fact,many online teachers report that teaching online is more time consuming than teaching in aclassroom because of the amount of individual attention each online student receives. Courses aredelivered via a software package called a learning management system (LMS), which includescommunication tools, instructional tools, and assessment features.The teacher in online and blended courses is just as important as the teacher in the physicalclassroom. An online teacher’s roles include guiding and individualizing learning; communicationwith students; assessing, grading, and promoting students; and, in some cases, developing theonline course content and structure.2 A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning (Version 2, 2010), by Matthew Wicks and published by the International Association for K-12 OnlineLearning (iNACOL). Available at www.inacol.org
Online instructional materials include audio and video presentations, animation, digitaltextbooks, and other content that may reside inside or outside the learning management system.Publishers, digital content companies, and nonproﬁt organizations are increasingly developingcontent. Except for synchronous instruction, little course material can be delivered via theequivalent of a classroom lecture.The skills necessary to successfully teach online often go beyond those required in a traditionalclassroom. Many online program professional development requirements focus on helpingteachers understand how to motivate individual learners, enhance student interaction andunderstanding without visual cues, tailor instruction to particular learning styles, and develop ormodify interactive lessons to meet student needs.Assessment and grading are as important in an online program as in a brick-and-mortar classroom.An online student typically completes a variety of quizzes, tests, exams, reﬂections of learning,collaborative discussions, and individual/group work products, such as essays and projects,which the teacher will use in determining the student’s grade in that class. For students takingindividual online courses in combination with traditional classes as part of their brick-and-mortarschool program, online course grades simply become part of their overall grade point average.While students’ mastery of concepts learned in supplemental online courses may be assessed inmore general standardized tests, such as high school exit exams, the online course provider istypically not responsible for administering these tests. Rather, the home school, where a studentis ofﬁcially enrolled, is held accountable.One exception to the typical accountability pattern in the supplemental online course realm isthe online Advanced Placement® course which is directly accountable for student results on therelevant AP® exam. Quality online AP® course providers track these results carefully and disclosethem as part of key course information.Full-time online schools, on the other hand, bear full accountability for all student assessments.As with all public schools, online school students must take required state assessments. Testadministration can be a complex task, especially for programs serving most or all of an entirestate. This challenge is exacerbated by the need for students to travel to testing sites during thecustomary testing dates set by the state, leaving the best-laid testing plans vulnerable to earlyspring snowstorms and other weather challenges.Although technology is important to online learning, it is crucial not to overstate its role. In theonline environment teachers and students are still the primary players; the technology plays asupporting role. In addition, while some cutting-edge educational technology tools hold greatpromise for online learning—and indeed classroom-based learning as well—the basic technologicalcomponents in online education are fairly simple. The hardware that is required is available in mostschools and many homes across the country. The software may, with some exceptions, be on itsway to becoming a commodity, judging by the vendors’ focus on price and services.In many respects the hardware and software are essentially the “facilities” of an online school,much as physical buildings are the facilities of a traditional school. However, unlike traditionalschool facility funding, there is no such funding mechanism for online facilities.
Some school districts, however, are ﬁnding that their hardware and bandwidth limitations aremajor barriers to large-scale implementation of online and blended opportunities across thedistrict. This is in part because in early stages, access to online courses may be based on excessor easily acquired capacity—but as hardware and network requirements increase, signiﬁcantimprovements must be made across the district. This is particularly true of urban districts withschool buildings that pre-date wiring for computers and Internet access, and rural areas withlimited access to high-speed Internet connections.Online schools vary in many of their key elements. A set of the deﬁning dimensions of onlineprograms, represented in Figure 1, describes whether the program is supplemental or full-time; 3the breadth of its geographic reach; the organizational type and operational control; and locationand type of instruction. Some of these attributes may be combined or operate along a continuum(e.g., location and type of instruction).Of the ten dimensions listed in the ﬁgure, four are especially signiﬁcant: • Comprehensiveness (supplemental vs. full-time): One important distinction is whether the online program provides a complete set of courses for students enrolled full-time or provides a small number of supplemental courses to students enrolled in a physical school. Full-time programs typically must address the same accountability measures as physical schools in their states.3 Deﬁning dimensions of online programs. Figure adapted from Gregg Vanourek, A Primer on Virtual Charter Schools: Mapping the ElectronicFrontier, Issue Brief for National Association of Charter School Authorizers, August 2006.
• Reach: Online programs may operate within a school district, across multiple school districts, across a state, or in a few cases, nationally or internationally. The geographic reach of online programs is a major contributing factor to the ways in which education policies can be outdated when applied to online programs, because the policies do not account for the possibility that a student in California may be learning from a teacher in Illinois who is employed by a program in Massachusetts.• Delivery (synchronous vs. asynchronous): Most online programs are primarily asynchronous—meaning that students and teachers work at different times, not necessarily in real-time interaction with each other—but those that operate classes in real time may present a somewhat different set of program and policy questions depending on state policies.• Type of instruction (from fully online to fully face-to-face): Many programs are now combining the best aspects of online and classroom instruction to create a variety of blended or hybrid learning experiences.
Online, elearning, virtual schools, digital courses—there are countless terms that relate to onlinelearning but which may have different meanings for different people and organizations. Thissection deﬁnes the terms that Keeping Pace uses throughout the report.Online learning is teacher-led education that takes place over the Internet, with the teacher andstudent separated geographically.Supplemental online programs provide a small number of courses to students who are enrolledin a school separate from the online program.Full-time online schools, also called cyberschools, work with students who are enrolledprimarily (often only) in the online school. Cyberschools typically are responsible for theirstudents’ scores on state assessments required by No Child Left Behind, which is the primary wayin which student outcomes, and school performance, are measured. In some states most full-timeonline schools are charter schools.The ways in which Keeping Pace counts student numbers for full-time programs and supplementalprograms differ from one another: Course enrollments—one student in one semester-long course—are used to count student numbers in supplemental programs. Student enrollments—deﬁned as one year-long full-time equivalent (FTE) student—are used to count student numbers in full-time online schools.State virtual schools are created by legislation or by a state-level agency, and/or administeredby a state education agency, and/or funded by a state appropriation or grant for the purpose ofproviding online learning opportunities across the state. (They may also receive federal or privatefoundation grants, and often charge course fees to help cover their costs.) Examples of state virtualschools include the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, Florida Virtual School, and Michigan VirtualSchool. Because online programs evolve, some programs are categorized as state virtual schoolsthat do not ﬁt the deﬁnition presently, but did in important stages of their development.State-led online initiatives are different from state virtual schools in that these initiativestypically offer online tools and resources for schools across the state but do not have a centralizedstudent enrollment or registration system for students in online courses. Examples include theOregon Virtual School District and Massachusetts Online Network for Education (MassONE).Some states draw a distinction between single-district programs, which serve students whoreside within the district that is providing the online courses, and multi-district programs,which serve students from multiple districts. Single-district programs may sometimes serve a smallnumber of students from outside the home district while retaining single-district status.