ONLINE LEARNING IN WASHINGTON STATE SCHOOL DISTRICTS

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1 ONLINE LEARNING IN WASHINGTON STATE SCHOOL DISTRICTS by Torrey Morgan A report prepared for the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction June 2009

2 Executive Summary Requested by the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), this research surveys Washington State school districts about policies and practices related to online courses. The purpose of the research is to establish a better understanding of the nature of online learning in Washington and to present policy considerations for OSPI. The overarching research question for this project is: What are Washington State school district policies and practices related to online courses? Within this broad question, this research investigates policy and course delivery issues such as student access to online courses, funding, tracking, and quality assurance. While the state sets broad standards and guidelines for online learning, much policy discretion is left to the school districts. For example, districts establish student eligibility for online programs and determine whether or not a student can receive credit for a particular online course. Districts can also set policies that affect the accessibility of online courses, and districts determine how to track, record, and report online courses. Currently, the only information OSPI collects from all districts about online courses is secondary student enrollment. This research is the first time that the state has surveyed districts about online course policies and practices. While there are various types of online courses, for this research, online courses are defined as fully online, meaning that they are delivered entirely via the Internet, with no face to face component. This research consisted of a review of research on online learning in the United States and Washington State, a survey of Washington State school districts, and analysis of these results, including implications and policy considerations. Online learning is a recent phenomenon in K 12 education. Over the past decade, enrollment in online courses has grown. Based on a study of U.S. school district administrators, it is estimated that in , approximately 1.4 percent of K 12 students in the U.S. were enrolled in a fully online course(s). There are various types of online course providers and the three most common types, based on the survey of U.S. district administrators, are postsecondary institutions, state virtual schools within the district s home state, and independent vendors. In Washington State in the school year, districts reported that there were 14,266 secondary students enrolled in one or more online course for credit. Washington State has a state led online initiative called the Digital Learning Commons (DLC), which is a nonprofit organization that offers online courses and resources to schools and students, but does not award credit or diplomas. There are currently ten other statewide online programs run by school districts that serve students statewide.

3 For this research, a survey was designed to collect information from Washington State districts about policies and practices related to online learning. In summary, the survey addressed district policies regarding student access to online courses, types of course providers and types of courses likely to be approved for credit, and other district policies including those related to at risk students, tracking online courses, and funding. Using an online survey tool, the survey was sent to school district technology directors or the equivalent position. An impressive 45 percent of school districts completed the survey. Based on size, location, and online course enrollment, the sample of districts that responded to the survey is similar to the entire population of all districts. The findings reveal significant variations in the policies and practices among school districts related to online courses. Two of the best examples of these variations are highlighted below: 1) Districts gave 54 unique responses to the question of what factors are considered in determining if an online course can be taken for credit. 2) About one third of districts distinguish online courses on transcripts, record course completion rates and collect feedback about online courses, and the way in which districts do these things is variable. Other compelling survey findings include: The majority of districts restrict some or all students from taking online courses for credit. Over half of districts respondents indicated that students take online courses for credit from two or more types of course providers. The findings show that there is much variation among districts with regards to the providers from which students take online courses for credit. In all, districts reported 50 different combinations of providers. Among the barriers students face in accessing online courses, cost was cited most often. The findings of this survey raise some concerns, many of which the state plans to address through Substitute Senate Bill 5410, passed in the 2009 legislative session. To complement the efforts put forth in the law, this report provides recommendations to OSPI, summarized below. First, this report shows that given the variations in district policies and practices related to online courses, there is an argument to be made that more guidance from the state may be called for. Second, the report recommends that OPSI consider conducting an assessment of online course providers and online course quality. Third, OSPI should consider regulation on whether students of all grade levels are permitted to take online courses for credit. Fourth, OSPI should consider creating a standard definition of online course completion and to strongly urge districts to record course completion rates. Lastly, OSPI should consider setting a standard for distinguishing online courses on transcripts.

4 Table of Contents Chapter 1: Introduction... 1 Research questions and purpose... 4 Overview of report... 4 Chapter 2: Research Methods... 6 Literature review... 6 Survey of Washington State school districts... 7 Data analysis... 9 Chapter 3: Status of K 12 Online Learning K 12 online learning in the United States K 12 online learning in Washington State Online course enrollment Programs and providers Washington State laws and policies School districts Chapter 4: Findings Respondent characteristics District policies regarding students taking online courses for credit District practices: online course providers, at risk students, and funding District practices: tracking and quality assurance Issues of access to online courses Districts general comments on online courses Chapter 5: Discussion and Implications Variations in survey responses Implications and policy considerations related to findings How the state is addressing some of the concerns Summary of recommendations References Appendix A: Survey... 59

5 Chapter 1: Introduction The Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state agency that oversees K 12 public education in Washington. Requested by OSPI, this research project investigates Washington State school district policies and practices related to online courses. Online courses are a type of distance education, a term used to encompass various types of instructional delivery in which the teacher and student are physically separated. Examples of distance education include videoconferencing, correspondence courses, audio based courses, video based courses and online courses. Online courses are delivered via the Internet, through which students view lecture notes, receive and submit assignments, and converse with the instructor and other students. Online courses use various technologies such as interactive online chat, correspondence, webconferencing, and message posting. 1 There are different types of online courses, including fully online courses and online courses that involve varying amounts of face to face instruction. In the literature, online courses are categorized in various ways and are not always consistent with each other. In this research, online courses are defined as fully online, meaning that they are delivered entirely via the Internet, with no face to face component. Only recently have online courses become a part of K 12 education in the United States. Over the past decade, school districts in Washington State and across the country have seen a growth in the numbers of students enrolled in online courses. In the most recent survey of U.S. School District Administrators, 70 percent of responding school districts had one or more student enrolled in a fully online course. Based on this study, it is estimated that in the U.S. 1 OSPI website, 1

6 approximately 665,871 K 12 students were enrolled in fully online courses in the school year, which is 1.4 percent of the entire population of about 49,000,000 public school students in the United States. Enrollment in online courses is estimated to have increased by 47 percent between the and school years. 2 In Washington State, 14,266 secondary students were enrolled in one or more online courses for credit in the school year. 3 Washington has a state led online learning initiative, which funds the Digital Learning Commons, a nonprofit organization that provides online courses and resources across the state. In addition, there are currently ten other statewide online programs run by school districts that serve students statewide, as well as online course offerings from various online course providers. In these scenarios, online course providers can include school districts, district consortiums, postsecondary institutions, and nonprofit and commercial providers. To further complicate matters, students in Washington State can enroll in online courses in other states, including state virtual schools. Limited data The variety of online learning programs and course providers outside of the traditional school district structure is one of the reasons why data on online courses are limited. Data are limited also because of inconsistent terminology and the fact that there are minimal or no requirements in many states to collect data on online students. Similarly, in Washington State, there is very little centralized data at the state level and it is limited in scope. The only data that OSPI collects from all districts about online courses are generated by a few questions in the yearly technology inventory survey. Specifically, the survey asks districts to report numbers of secondary students enrolled in one or more online courses for credit. In all other types other data that districts regularly report to OSPI, online courses are not distinguished from traditional courses. Currently, the State does not have specific reporting requirements for online courses. 2 Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A 2008 Follow up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 3 Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Education Technology Survey Results

7 Washington State laws that govern online learning include the Alternative Learning Experiences (ALE) Laws and rules that regulate instruction provided under a contract. ALE laws entail that certain requirements must be met for a course to award credit, including instructors that meet the Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT requirement), the creation of a written student plan, and monthly progress reviews. In addition, all online programs in Washington are required to be accredited through a state or regional accreditation program. Each school district offering an online program must send OSPI information about the program characteristics to show proper accreditation. 4 While the state sets broad standards and guidelines, much policy discretion is left to the school districts. For example, districts establish student eligibility for online programs and determine whether or not a student can receive credit for a particular online course. Districts can also set policies that affect the accessibility of online courses, such as removing barriers or putting restrictions in place. Districts determine how to track, record, and report online courses. As such, online courses are not necessarily distinguished on transcripts and completion rates are not necessarily tracked. Given this context, to better understand the nature of online learning in Washington State, it is crucial to understand district policies and practices related to online courses. Two large national studies surveyed school districts about online courses, one conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and one by the Sloan Consortium. Both of these studies involved an initial survey and a follow up survey two years later. More information about these studies can be found in Chapter Two of this report. These surveys focused mostly on enrollment characteristics, course characteristics, and general policy issues, but not specific district policies and practices. Information about online course policies and practices has never been collected from Washington State school districts. 4 Burwell, Washington State Online Learning Policies and Programs. 3

8 Research questions and purpose To gather this unknown information about Washington State school districts and to gain a more complete understanding of the nature of online learning in Washington, the overarching research question for this project is: What are Washington State school district policies and practices related to online courses? Within this broad question, this research investigates policy and course delivery issues such as student access to online courses, funding, tracking, course completion, and quality assurance. The purpose of this research is to gather information about district policies and practices related to online courses so that OSPI, as well as other stakeholders, can have more complete information and make better informed decisions in the future. Findings from this research may help OSPI define its role with regards to online course policy, governance, instructional best practice and effective course design. Overview of report The following chapters will describe the methods used for this research, provide a review of K 12 online learning in the United States and Washington State, present the survey findings, and discuss the implications of the findings. Chapter two presents the methods used for this research about online courses, the first of its kind in Washington State. The chapter explains the details of the literature review, the survey method and design, and the limitations present. As requested by OSPI, in order to present a comprehensive background to the issues surrounding online learning, Chapter three details the growth and status of K 12 online learning in the United States and Washington State. The chapter is based on a review of the literature, including research on online learning in the United States, national studies of states and school districts, a report on online learning in Washington State, and articles about policy issues, online course quality, outcomes and evaluation. 4

9 Following the overview of K 12 online learning in the United States and Washington, Chapter four presents the findings of the survey of Washington State school districts. The chapter describes the characteristics of the survey respondents and details the results of each survey question, divided among five categories. The chapter presents an analysis of survey question results based on district size (total enrollment) and location (urban/rural) and draws correlations between responses to specific questions. Chapter five provides further discussion of the findings, possible implications and policy considerations. The chapter focuses on what the findings might mean for OSPI, how the State legislature is tackling the concerns raised in this research, and other policy considerations. 5

10 Chapter 2: Research Methods This chapter describes the methods used to complete this research project. The purpose of this research is to understand Washington State school districts policies and practices related to online courses, and to present the implications of the findings and possible policy considerations. The research for this project was completed in three phases. The first phase was to compile information about the growth and current status of K 12 online learning in the United States and in Washington State. The second step was to design a survey tool and conduct a survey of Washington State school districts. The third phase was data analysis and interpretation. The reasons for choosing these research methods, the details about their design and implementation, and the limitations are described below. Literature review A review of practitioner and academic literature provided information about the growth and current status of K 12 online learning in the United States and Washington State. Useful resources included education and policy research databases and online learning organizations, such as the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL). In addition, OSPI pointed to some valuable sources and provided primary source documents, which offered useful information about the context of online learning specifically in Washington State. The sources used in the literature review include national studies of states and school districts, a report on online learning in Washington State, and articles about policy issues, online course quality, outcomes and evaluation. Topics researched for the United States literature review include the scope of online learning, the various types of online learning programs and online course providers, and federal and state polices related to online learning. The research also covered the topics of research and evaluation of online learning and factors that limit growth. 6

11 The research for Washington State was similar. Topics covered include online course enrollment, programs and providers, and Washington and state law and policy. The research also examined what types of decisions are made at the school district level with regards to online learning policies and practices. Survey of Washington State school districts For this research, OSPI requested a survey of Washington State school districts. A survey is an effective method to efficiently gather a large amount of data in a short time, which was appropriate for this project given that there are 295 school districts in Washington State. Also given the context, a survey was effective because districts are accustomed to completing surveys conducted by OSPI. The survey tool provided the ability to quickly gather information from as many districts as possible and to produce data that could be readily analyzed. In contrast, conducting interviews would have entailed selecting a limited number of districts to interview and as a consequence, some districts willing to share information would not have been included. The survey was distributed to a list compiled by OSPI of the school district technology directors for each district. For smaller districts, there may not be a technology director, so another administrator who fills this role was listed instead. Either way, the list included the administrator from each school district who is most likely to know about district policies and practices related to online courses. Survey design The objective of the survey was to gather information about school district policies and practices related to K 12 online courses in Washington State. The design of the survey began with a list of key issues to investigate compiled by OSPI. The survey was drafted and revised, and then pre tested with the Educational Technology Director at OSPI and two districts. 7

12 It was not possible to cover all aspects of online course policies and practices in the survey. The survey aimed to address the issues most crucial to OSPI, and in order to achieve this, OSPI provided feedback throughout the survey design process. The survey was designed to be short enough to complete in a reasonable amount of time (approximately 15 minutes). The survey design was intended to produce data that would provide for mostly quantitative analysis and some qualitative analysis. To this end, the questions were framed in such a way so that the results could be aggregated and analyzed. The survey was 20 questions, made up of three open ended questions and 17 close ended (limited choice or check all that apply) questions. The close ended questions always allowed for a write in response. Eight of the close ended questions also asked for open ended explanations if a respondent gave a specific answer. Below is a summary of the issues covered in the survey: 5 District policies regarding student access to online courses, such as restrictions and policies to handle student requests to take one or more online course for credit. Perception of barriers to online courses and how students receive information about online courses. Types of course providers from which students take online courses for credit and which types of courses are likely to be approved for credit. Funding and tracking of online courses taken for credit. Practices to ensure online course quality. The survey was designed in Catalyst, which is a University of Washington online survey tool. The request to complete the survey was an sent directly from OSPI with an explanation of the purpose of the survey and the link to complete the survey. 6 The stated that if there is a 5 See Appendix A for the complete survey. 6 See Appendix A for the that was sent with the survey. 8

13 district employee who is a better choice to complete the survey, to please forward the to that person. The districts were given 17 days to complete the survey. Survey limitations There are some limitations to the survey research method. A common limitation of surveys is a low response rate, particularly when a survey is voluntary like the one for used in this research. A survey is limited by length and by the number of open ended questions it can contain while still encouraging a high response rate and feasible analysis. To promote response rates and to protect confidentiality, surveys often allow respondents to skip questions, which can limit the data gathered. Lastly, a survey is limited in that it is a one time attempt to get the information needed. Data analysis Before analyzing the survey data, the data was sorted to ensure that no duplicates or nondistrict responses were included. In 12 districts, more than one person from the district responded to the survey, probably a result of miscommunication. In addition, there was one respondent who listed their district as an entire Educational Service District so it was not clear if they represented one district or more than one, and consequently, this response was omitted. A decision rule was created to deal with the duplicate responses. First, if one response answered none or not applicable to all survey questions and the other provided substantive responses, the respondent with substantive responses was retained. This was the situation for three of the 12 duplicate responses. For the other nine duplicate responses, the two responses were merged into one. For all questions, if one respondent did not give an answer and the other did, the one answer was retained. If there were two answers to a question and the answers were different, the rule was based on question type: Open ended questions: retained both responses Close ended questions o Check all that apply questions: retained all responses that either respondent checked (including write in responses) 9

14 o Factual questions limited to one answer: did not include either response o Impression questions limited to one answer: retained the response with more information (i.e., if one answered yes with an explanation and one answers no, retained the yes and explanation) After the survey data was cleaned, the results were analyzed using descriptive statistics and qualitative analysis. For each question, the data was sorted by response. For check all thatapply questions, the data was sorted by the number of unique responses as well as the number of times that each answer option was selected. Open ended questions were sorted and analyzed for themes and relevant nuances. To examine the data further, responses for specific questions were sorted into meaning subcategories, based on district size (total enrollment) and location (urban/rural). Data was also analyzed to assess correlations between questions. For example, findings were analyzed to determine whether districts that permit all students to take online courses for credit answer some questions differently than those districts that restrict some students from taking online courses for credit. After analyzing the survey data, the analysis was taken a step further to explain the implications of the findings and policy considerations. 10

15 Chapter 3: Status of K 12 Online Learning K 12 online learning in the United States Growth of K 12 online learning Over the past decade, the number of K 12 students taking online courses has grown. Research shows that online learning was initially used primarily for Advanced Placement and early college credit, but that alternative and remedial uses are growing. 7 As explained in a comprehensive review, the expansion of K 12 distance education (including online education) has been fueled by initiatives to expand educational opportunities for all students, funding shortages, overcrowded schools, exploration of alternative routes for education, and efforts to expand the range of courses available. 8 These forces, along with rapid technological development and widespread availability of the Internet in public schools and elsewhere, have fostered the growth of K 12 online learning. K 12 online learning continues to expand because of its perceived significance and role in K 12 education. A survey of U.S. school district administrators revealed that the perceived importance of online learning is mostly related mostly to student needs. The reasons to offer online courses that were most commonly reported as important include: offering courses not otherwise available at the school; meeting the needs of specific groups of students; offering advanced placement or college level courses; permitting students who failed a course to take it again; and reducing scheduling conflicts for students. 9 Despite the growth of K 12 online learning over the past decade, data is limited in comparison to postsecondary online education for which trends have been followed for many years. The limited data related to K 12 online learning can be attributed to the following four factors: 10 7 Smith, Clark, and Blomeyer, A Synthesis of New Research on K 12 Online Learning. 8 Rice, A Comprehensive Look at Distance Education in the K 12 Context. 9 Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A 2008 Follow up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 10 Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 11

16 1) There are minimal or no requirements in many states to collect data on online students. 2) There is some confusion related to definitions of online learning and distance education. 3) There are various public, private and for profit providers of online courses, many of which operate outside of the traditional school district structure. The school district may not be informed when students take online courses from outside providers. 4) Many home schooled students take online courses for a portion of their coursework, and data on this population is very limited. In response to the insufficiency of data and in an effort to understand the nature and extent of K 12 online learning, in the past five years there has been a marked increase in data collection. National surveys of U.S. school districts In 2005, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) published the first comprehensive report of distance education in K 12 schools based on data collected during the school year. In 2008, the USDOE issued a follow up study using data collected during the school year. These studies surveyed a representative sample of 2,312 public school districts in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The studies define distance education as any credit granting course in which the teacher and student are in different locations. As such, courses included in the studies could be delivered online, or via audio, video, or other technology. Because the USDOE reports investigate all types of distance education, and not only online courses, the findings are not entirely relevant to this research. Of interest, however, is that the follow up USDOE study explored online distance education in a little more depth. It found that 71 percent of districts with students enrolled in technology based distance education courses had students enrolled in online courses. Eighty six percent of these districts reported that the online courses were accessed from school, 59 percent from home and eight percent from some other location. Nineteen percent of districts with students accessing online courses from home provided or paid for a computer for all of those students, and 10 percent did so for some 12

17 students. Overall, the study found that online education is increasingly accessible and common among schools and districts, but that video based technologies remain widely used as well. 11 In 2007, the Sloan Consortium issued a study of K 12 online learning based on a survey of U.S. school district administrators. This study was specifically focused on online learning and surveyed districts about two distinct types of online courses: 1) Online courses in which most (at least 80%) or all of the content is delivered online; and 2) Blended/hybrid courses that blend online and face to face delivery in which a substantial proportion (30 to 79%) of the content is delivered online. Three hundred and sixty six school districts responded to the survey. 12 Two years later, The Sloan Consortium conducted a follow up study, replicating the original study in order to substantiate findings and examine changes. The follow up study was based on the school year, with 867 school districts responding. The findings in the follow up study confirmed and substantiated the findings in the original report. The significant changes were in the growth of online course enrollment over the two years: 13 In the school year, 57.9 percent of the responding districts had students enrolled in online courses (not blended) compared to 69.8 percent of responding districts in The Sloan studies estimate that in there were 700,000 K 12 students enrolled in online courses (online and hybrid courses), and in there were 1,030,000, a 47 percent increase in two years. It is significant that this growth is not the result of a few large virtual schools or the specific needs of rural school districts, but a result of students taking online courses (online or blended) in three quarters of all districts (74.8%) respondents. The follow up study of the school year allowed for a breakdown of enrollment numbers by fully online and blended online courses. Based on this study, it is estimated that in the U.S. approximately 665,871 K 12 students were enrolled in fully online courses in the 11 Zandberg and Lewis, Technology Based Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary Schools: and Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 13 Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A 2008 Follow up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 13

18 school year, which is 1.4 percent of the entire population of about 49,000,000 public school students in the United States. 14 Data show that online learning is spreading throughout K 12 education and specifically in secondary education. Continued growth seems likely, as the follow up survey showed that 66% of districts with students enrolled in online courses (online or blended) anticipate enrollments to grow, and most districts with no students enrolled in online courses plan to introduce them over the next three years. 15 Enrollment characteristics The large majority of K 12 students taking online courses are high school students. The Sloan studies found that of students enrolled in online courses (not blended), 73 percent were in grades 9 12 in and in , 64 percent were in grades The Sloan studies did not discuss how enrollment varies based on district size or location. However, the USDOE report on technology based education found that a greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts had students in enrolled in distance education courses (50%, 32% and 37% respectively), and that a greater proportion of districts in rural areas than in suburban or urban areas reported they had students enrolled in distance education courses (46%, 28% and 23% respectively). 17 Unfortunately, there is no comparable data specifically for online learning. Research shows that some of the reasons why students enroll in distance education (including online courses) are convenience, flexibility in scheduling, credit recovery, accelerated learning opportunities, conflict avoidance, and the ability to take courses not offered at a local school. 18 Research indicates that online education can serve populations that traditional classrooms may not, such as students in home school settings, students who live in remote areas, students who are hospitalized or home bound for health reasons, students who are incarcerated, students 14 Ibid. 15 Ibid. 16 Ibid. 17 Zandberg and Lewis, Technology Based Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary Schools: and Rice, A Comprehensive Look at Distance Education in the K 12 Context. 14

19 who need flexible schedules for employment, or students who want to accelerate or expand their education, move at their own pace, or experience learning that fits their particular learning style. 19 Online learning serves a range of students, attracting students who are academically accelerated as well as students who have not been successful in the traditional classroom. Online course providers There are various types of online course providers and many school districts report that they utilize more than one provider. Online course providers across the United State include: school districts, charter schools, state virtual schools, state technology service agencies, postsecondary institutions, and for profit and nonprofit independent vendors. 20 Based on the most recent survey of U.S. school district administrators, the three most common providers of online courses are: 1) post secondary institutions; 2) state virtual school within the district s home state; and 3) independent vendors. 21 Online course providers can be administered by state agencies, departments of education, school districts, consortiums, postsecondary institutions, or independent organizations. Providers offer either supplemental online courses, full time online options, or both, as explained in the following section. Types of online learning programs An important distinction for online learning programs is whether they are supplemental or fulltime. Supplemental programs enroll students who are simultaneously enrolled in a school separate from the online program, while students in full time programs are enrolled only in the online school. Full time programs are typically responsible for students scores on state assessments and are typically funded by the per student (FTE) public education funding formula that follows the student, while most state led supplemental programs are funded primarily by 19 Ibid. 20 Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 21 Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A 2008 Follow up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 15

20 separate legislative appropriations. However useful, the supplemental and full time distinctions are not precise because a few supplemental programs have some full time students, and some full time programs have some part time students. 22 As of fall 2008: 23 Twenty three states offer supplemental opportunities, but not full time options. Most of these states have state led programs (definition below). Seventeen states (including Washington) offer both supplemental and full time online options for students. Many of these states have both a state led program and full time, online schools. Four states offer full time options, but not supplemental. These states have extensive charter schools and/or district online programs, but do not have a state led supplemental program that offers courses to students across the state. To further explain the distinctions between various online learning programs, the yearly national report Keeping Pace with Online Learning: A Review of State Level Policy and Practice uses the following definitions: 24 State led online programs are created by legislation or by a state level agency and are generally administered by a state education agency and funded by a state appropriation or grant. State led programs are typically supplemental programs, meaning that they offer courses for students who are also enrolled in a traditional school separate from the online program. State led online initiatives offer online tools and resources for schools across the state, including aggregating courses from outside sources, but do not develop and offer their own courses. Full time online programs, sometimes called cyber schools or virtual schools, are online learning programs in which students enroll and earn credits. Many full time online schools in the United States are charter schools. The national report found that as of fall 2008, 34 states have state led programs or initiatives that are designed, in most cases, to work with existing school districts to supplement course offerings. Washington State has a state led online initiative, which will be explained in the 22 Watson, Gemin, and Ryan, Keeping Pace with K 12 Online Learning: A Review of State Level Policy and Practice. 23 Ibid. 24 Ibid. 16

21 Washington State portion of this chapter. Twenty one states have full time online schools, which are often charter schools, although some are non charter, district run programs that are available to students across the state. 25 State full time online schools and state led programs or initiatives are ways in which states govern online learning. While online learning is primarily governed at the state level, there are also some federal laws related to online learning. Federal laws governing K 12 online learning The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) applies to online learning environments as well as traditional schools. Specifically, online teachers are subject to NCLB s highly qualified teacher (HQT) requirement. The requirements state that secondary teachers have at least a bachelor s degree and a state certification or pass the state licensing exam, and an elementary teacher must hold at least a bachelor s degree and pass a state test. There are some exceptions, such as a rural school district s inability to fill a teaching vacancy. 26 If federal funds are used for online learning, specific laws apply. As such, the Children s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) regulates internet access in schools that receive federal technology funding, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act make it against the law for a student to be prevented from participating due to a disability. 27 Also, the U.S. Department of Education requires that school district report annually on numbers of computers, Internet connectivity, technology literacy, and use of technology in the classroom. 28 State online learning policy While federal laws play a role, online learning is largely governed at the state level. State governments determine the type of online learning program they will support, such as a stateled program or initiative or a full time online school. States also make policies for funding, quality assurance, and tracking and accountability. This literature review provides examples of state policies and explains key policy issues. 25 Ibid Burwell, Washington State Online Learning Policies and Programs. 28 Ibid. 17

22 According to Keeping Pace, the national report of state level online learning, 40 states have state level policy regulating online learning. These state level policies are in the forms of statutes, administrative code or rules, or state board policy. State legislation related to online learning include legislation on charter schools, legislation to create a virtual school or another state led program, funding legislation, and legislation to set policy for online programs or schools. 29 There are a few key policy issues in online learning. Often in distance education literature, policy areas are divided into seven categories. 30 Specifically for online learning, The Keeping Pace report presents a simplified model with three broad policy areas: 1) funding; 2) governance, tracking, and accountability; and 3) quality assurance, teaching, and curriculum. 31 Research and evaluation To help inform policymaking, decision makers rely on research and evaluation. Research on online education can be divided into two categories: 1) studies that compare online learning to traditional classroom learning; and 2) studies that examine specific components of online learning such as student characteristics, instruction and course design. Comparative studies Five meta analyses have been conducted in recent years comparing the effectiveness of K 12 distance education to classroom learning. While most of these analyses evaluated distance education in general, one analysis by Cavanaugh et al (2004) focused solely on K 12 online learning. Cavanaugh et al completed a meta analysis of fourteen studies focusing on student outcomes. This analysis showed that based on the best research available, a student s education online 29 Watson, Gemin, and Ryan, Keeping Pace with K 12 Online Learning: A Review of State Level Policy and Practice. 30 King et al., Policy Frameworks for Distance Education: Implications for Decision Makers ; Simonson, Policy and Distance Education. 31 Watson, Gemin, and Ryan, Keeping Pace with K 12 Online Learning: A Review of State Level Policy and Practice. 18

23 can be as effective as it is in a classroom. Their conclusion was that students can experience similar levels of academic success while learning online and learning in classroom settings, but that the variation in the degrees of success calls for a need for more information. The authors also called on policymakers and evaluators to move beyond comparison studies and begin to evaluate specific characteristics of effective K 12 online learning programs. 32 While these studies show that online education has the potential to be as effective as classroom education, there is skepticism among many educators and policymakers. There is concern among teachers related to professional development, job security, weakening teacher status, and instructional change, which could lead to diploma devaluation. 33 School district administrators share similar concerns. School districts reported that the major barriers and issues for online learning are: 34 1) Concerns about course quality. 2) Course development and/or purchasing costs. 3) Concerns about receiving funding based on student attendance for online courses. 4) The need for teacher training. Among these barriers and issues, concern about course quality was cited by the most school district administrators as an important issue. Specifically, the administrators expressed concern about the ability of online courses to replace face to face instruction effectively, the concern about monitoring quality of courses offered outside of the district, and the need for welltrained online instructors. 35 Research on characteristics of K 12 online education Student Characteristics Research about student characteristics is generally focused on the relationship between student characteristics and student success. Based on a recent literature review, most studies 32 Cavanaugh et al., The Effects of Distance Education on K 12 Student Outcomes: A Meta Analysis. 33 Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 34 Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A Survey of U.S. School District Administrators ; Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A 2008 Follow up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 35 Picciano and Seaman, K 12 Online Learning: A 2008 Follow up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. 19

24 examining student characteristics are descriptive or anecdotal, and most studies suggest that a combination of factors may contribute to student success. 36 These studies are so broad and generalizing that they are virtually non informative. A study in 2003 used the results from an educational success instrument to predict student success in online courses. The study found that students who are successful in online courses (earn an A, B, or C) enjoy technology, have strong language skills, are visual learners, have consistent parent support, and are involved in non academic activities. 37 Students who spend fewer hours working at a job outside school are also more successful. 38 Another study found that successful online students are motivated, independent and self directed. 39 Research indicates that student success in online courses has improved over time as course design, instructional practice, support services, and student screening have evolved. 40 Instructional Practices It has been hypothesized that teacher quality plays a significant role in online education outcomes, just as it does in traditional education environments. 41 Studies have found that a high degree of student teacher interaction is a necessity in online learning and that online students value frequent and timely responses to questions and inter student communication within courses. 42 There are limited studies that address the specific needs of K 12 online learners as opposed to adult learners. Specific best practices for online instruction are usually isolated examples from individual virtual schools or teachers within a school. 43 Online courses require a shift in the role of teachers. There are barriers to teachers making this shift, including concerns about course quality. Studies recognize that a fundamental concern of teachers is how much can be 36 Rice, A Comprehensive Look at Distance Education in the K 12 Context. 37 Roblyer & Marshall as cited in North American Council for Online Learning, Effectiveness of K 12 Online Learning. 38 Roblyer & Marshall as cited in Rice, A Comprehensive Look at Distance Education in the K 12 Context. 39 North American Council for Online Learning, Effectiveness of K 12 Online Learning. 40 North American Council for Online Learning, Effectiveness of K 12 Online Learning. 41 Cavanaugh et al 2004 as cited in Rice, A Comprehensive Look at Distance Education in the K 12 Context. 42 Weiner and Zucker as cited in North American Council for Online Learning, Effectiveness of K 12 Online Learning. 43 Barbour as cited in Ibid. 20

25 accomplished in the classroom versus online. Other barriers include inadequate training and professional development, lack of time for development for course content, and technological barriers. 44 Course Design One of the greatest criticisms and concerns about K 12 online education is the lack of social interactions and what effect that might have on students development and socialization. There have been improvements in recent years in online technologies, such as threaded discussion boards, that allow for enhanced interaction and replicate classroom interactions as closely as possible. 45 There are a variety of possible types of interaction that can occur in an online course. The types of interaction can be categorized as synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (delayed time). Examples of synchronous interactions are instant messaging or chat tools, file sharing and audio and video communications. Examples of asynchronous interaction are and threaded discussion. 46 Evidence points to the importance of interactions with teachers in course design. A 2003 study found that online students who experience consistent, positive relationships with their teachers were less likely to drop out. 47 Reducing dropout rate is a critical concern of K 12 online schools and programs, which have relatively high dropout and failure rates; as much as 50 percent. 48 Evaluation The literature reveals that evaluations of online learning programs should focus on issues of student outcomes and achievement as well as issues such as equity, access, and development of online teachers. 44 Rice, A Comprehensive Look at Distance Education in the K 12 Context. 45 Romiszowski & Mason as cited in Ibid. 46 Rominzowski & Mason as cited in Ibid. 47 Zweig as cited in Ibid. 48 Carr, Roblyer & Elbaum, Simpson as cited in Ibid. 21

26 In recent years, there has been an effort to compile best practices into a set of standards that programs and teachers can use in evaluation. These quality standards include areas such as course content, instructional design, student assessment, technology, and course evaluation and management. Readers wanting further information on example evaluations and evaluation strategies should refer to literature on program evaluation and a report published in 2008 by USDOE about challenges and recommended strategies for evaluating online learning WestEd with Edvance Research, Evaluating Online Learning: Challenges and Strategies for Success. 22

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