Latest on Virtual Schools

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning 2008 offers an introduction to online learning.

Full-time or supplemental?

One common way of disaggregating online programs is to distinguish between supplementary and full-time programs.

Programs are (generally) supplemental or full-time. Though the distinction is not always sharp, here are some of the qualities that generally characterize the two types of programs.

Supplemental programs:

  • A student takes one or two courses online but are otherwise enrolled in a traditional school.
  • No Child Left Behind and other assessment requirements are levied on the traditional school program.
  • Are generally funded by a dedicated appropriation from the legislature.
  • Their growth is measured by the number of course registrations. One-third are increasing registration by a rate of more than 50 percent a year.
  • They’re generally at the high-school level.
  • Most are run by a state education agency, not necessarily the department of education.
  • Supplemental programs are more common than full-time ones: While 17 states offer “significant” full-time programs, 23 offer “significant” supplemental programs.
  • Generally, “state-led online programs” are created by the state, are open to students anywhere in the state, and offer supplemental opportunities to students. The Illinois Virtual High School, the Kentucky Virtual High School, and the Michigan Virtual High School are examples.

Full-time programs:

  • A student is enrolled exclusively in an online program.
  • No Child Left Behind and other assessment requirements are levied on the full-time program.
  • In most states are funded by a per-pupil formula for full-time enrollment equivalent (FTE).
  • Their growth is measured by FTE enrollment, not course registration.
  • Their growth comes not so much from more students enrolling in existing programs, but more programs being developed. On the other hand, the second-largest full-time program grew 25 percent in the year surveyed.
  • Are generally not run by a state-level agency. The exception is the Florida Virtual School, which has over 700 full-tine students, but many more students taking supplemental classes.
  • May be run by either a charter school or a local school district.
  • Often supported by an organization such as Connections Academy, K12 Inc., Insight Schools, or iQ Academies, which provides content, teacher training and management.

Who takes online classes?

A variety of students, though it appears that honors students outnumber students who are “credit recovery,” or making up failed or missed classes.

Some numbers about growth of online learning

  • Most small programs are run by districts (LEAs, technically); most big programs are run by a state agency.
  • The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School has 7,798 students. It is the largest full-time program. The second-largest program is the Ohio Virtual Academy, at 5,225 students. But most full-time programs have fewer than 1,000 students.
  • Nearly one-third of all supplemental programs have seen course registration increase by 50 percent or more.
  • Programs that felt constrained in their growth blamed funding more than any other cause. These were generally supplemental rather than full-time programs. The policy environment was the second-leading concern.

Policy Issues

The report mentions some policy issues that face online learning, including:

How should students and programs be assessed? One way is to take a snapshot test of online programs, but many people think that a “growth model” is the best way of assessing the student and the program.

Should teachers be required to take additional training? Do teachers learn how to teach in a virtual school setting? Some states are deciding that the answer is yes, and creating new requirements.

Can students take an online program anywhere, only only in their own district? Some states still place restrictions on students seeking online coursework. Should a student’s district of residence have a veto over whether he takes an online class offered by another district? Incredibly, in some states that is the rule. But if a student does “leave” the district for a program offered elsewhere, how much money goes with him? The state base amount? Local money?

How quickly can home-school and private school students be eligible for these programs? Some states say that only students who attended a public school in the previous year may attend a public virtual school. While we recognize the concern over funding, this requirement fails to recognize that the focus of public education should be about educating students. Making a student first spend a year in a public school would be, for many students, making them “mark time” until they can do what they really want–learn in a way that works for them.

What should be the basis of funding? : Based on geography? Should funding for online schooling be based on geography, or should the same amount be allocated to each student’s online learning regardless of where he lives?

What about elementary students? While most students who take part in online learning are high school students, some are elementary school. The appropriateness of online learning for lower-division students presents a host of questions that we’re going to omit for now.

Will online learning truly disrupt class? Business professor Clayton Christensen suggests in his book “Disrupting Class” that online learning will revolutionize education. The authors of Keeping Pace, by contrast, warn that any transformation is not automatic. They point out that the people who benefit from online learning (students) are not the people who fund schooling (that would be legislators) or purchase educational services (for now, that’s school districts). In other words, there are a lot of institutional obstacles to online learning being a significant force for change.

Where does Kansas fit in?

How does Kansas compare with other states?

  • There are 35 programs in the state, run either by a school district or an educational service center.
  • It does not have a state-led supplemental program; 34 states do.
  • It does offer full-time programs; 21 states do.
  • It is one of 17 states to offer both supplemental and full-time programs.
  • Two states (Kansas is not one of them) currently or will require that a student take at least one online class to graduate.
  • Florida is the only state to require that all districts create or provide an online learning program.
  • In Kansas, Colorado, Idaho and Wisconsin, program audits led to suggestions that a moratorium be placed on online learning. Instead, the legislatures in each state placed additional regulations on the programs, but not a moratorium.
  • By contrast, two states (Connecticut and Delaware) scaled back their plans, citing budget concerns.
  • Unlike Wisconsin, it does not place a cap on the number of students who can take an online class or participate in an online program offered by another district. Unlike the Texas Legislature, the Kansas Legislature has not opposed students crossing district lines.
  • Kansas gives an equal funding to students regardless of geography. (This is a good thing.)

Recommendations of the report

  • Make sure that families are free to choose online learning.
  • Schools of education should teach future teachers how to teach online courses.
  • States should recognize teaching credentials of other states. This will help teachers cross state lines.
  • Create a national standard for content. [Not sure we can buy into that.]
  • Revise financial standard to make sure that the qualities of the online environment are taken into account, rather than depend on “seat time” and other old-school measures.
  • Establish basic tools for measuring program quality. For example, do students complete courses?

Here are some other takeaways from the report, though not formal conclusions:

Per-pupil funding models are more stable than legislative appropriations.

Kansas Resources

Finally, KSDE has a portal to information on virtual schools.

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  • Jon  On October 31, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Cool site, I plan to visit and read often

  • Michael B. Horn  On November 1, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Good post that highlight some great recommendations. These are quite helpful for everyone. Thank you!

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