Digital learning activity in traditional school districts

In my last post I discussed why we feel that the word “digital” is better than either “online” or “blended” alone to describe the education landscape as of late 2014. Much activity has moved from state virtual schools and statewide charter schools to traditional school districts, and in these districts digital learning has many different permutations. This shift is apparent in a number of ways, and from numerous sources. Providers of digital tools and content are selling mostly to districts. Funders are increasingly supporting and studying digital learning implementations in traditional public schools, and media reports reflect these changes. In addition, the large majority of students (about 84%) attend traditional public schools, as opposed to attending charter schools or private schools, or being home schooled.

But researchers lack solid numbers to quantify what is occurring in digital learning in traditional schools. In only a handful of states (e.g. CA, FL, and MI) has there been an effort to track digital learning activity in schools across the state—and researchers in those states are forthcoming about issues with the data that call into question the level of accuracy of the current numbers. The last federal survey that provided useful information about digital learning across all states collected distance education data from school year 2009-10 and was published in 2011. (Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009–10; NCES 2012-008).

A further challenge in quantifying digital learning activity is that so many permutations of digital learning exist. The term “blended learning,” for example, often describes something very different in elementary schools compared to high schools. We see the differences in digital learning activity between high schools and elementary schools when we look in more detail at digital content, platforms, devices, and teaching.

High schools have the widest and deepest range of digital options, which may include any or all of the following:

  • Online courses that include an online teacher are most common at the high school level. These may be focused on one type of student (e.g. advanced courses or credit recovery) or may be wide ranging (e.g. core courses). These courses are often coordinated at the district level, provided by a district virtual school, and taken by students from multiple schools across the district. In some cases the district offers enough online courses to provide a student’s entire education online for hospitalized, homebound, pregnant, incarcerated, or other students in similar uncommon circumstances.
  • Credit recovery courses that may have an online teacher, or may have a site-based facilitator who serves as the teacher of record, are a common starting point for high schools offering online courses. The district may coordinate credit recovery options but have them available at multiple high schools so that students at each school can access the courses.
  • An alternative education or independent study program may exist for students who wish to pursue their education in a setting other than a traditional high school. These programs usually do not follow a regular daily schedule, but include an onsite component and an online component.
  • Digital content in addition to full courses, and digital platforms such as learning management systems, are often used in classrooms to augment courses that are offered on a traditional daily and semester schedule. Content may be acquired from an outside provider, or developed by teachers for their own courses.

In elementary schools the use of digital tools and content is usually classroom-based, and typically used in math (mostly) and ELA. Other than in charter schools, most elementary schools deploy these tools and content within traditional classrooms and daily class schedules. They often seek digital content that is adaptive and can identify students’ learning challenges, and report them to the teacher. These schools are finding that in many cases the capabilities of data creation and presentation exceed the ability of teachers—many of whom became teachers in a pre-digital era—to use the data effectively. (Of course one might also say that teachers find that the data are not well presented. In any case, the capabilities of data creation and presentation systems often exceed their usage.) Because the focus is often on content that is adaptive, few instances exist of teachers creating their own online content at the elementary school level.

Middle school digital instruction contains some elements of both elementary schools and high schools, partly because of the transitional ages of their students. Sixth grade students, if they are using digital learning, are most likely to be using skill-based software; 8th grade students may be taking high school courses online in order to advance their learning trajectory, particularly in math.

In Keeping Pace 2014 we summarized these findings in the table below (click on the image to increase size).

digital options

In our next post we will look at how digital learning activity varies by the size of districts.


Online and blended learning is now “digital”

Some long-time Keeping Pace readers have been asking us about the new title of the 2014 annual report: Keeping Pace with K–12 Digital Learning. The phrase “digital learning” has replaced the reference to “online and blended learning” in the title of previous recent reports. This seemingly small word change signifies a significant evolution in the landscape, and in the way we are analyzing and reporting on it. A bit of history should be helpful in understanding our original focus, and our reason for changing.

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning was first published in 2004. At that time, we chose to focus on the young and disruptive K–12 teacher-led online learning segment, and not the broader use of education technology. In 2004, K–12 teacher-led online courses were almost exclusively provided by state virtual schools delivering supplemental online courses, and charter schools where students took all of their courses online. A small but growing number of school districts were also beginning to establish full-time online programs accessible to students regionally and across individual states.

Subsequent years saw two key changes. First, a growing amount of online learning activity developed inside individual schools and districts, as an ever-increasing number of students were taking online courses from within their own districts instead of from state virtual schools and virtual charter schools. Concurrently, a second shift was taking place. Schools were beginning to combine an online or digital content component with regular face-to-face classroom instruction in new and varied ways. In many cases, the classroom configuration and the bell schedule were unchanged. In some cases, the instructional approach and learning spaces were reconfigured to take advantage of the benefits of combining digital content and instructional management software with face-to-face teacher and student collaboration.

In 2012, in recognition of these changes and the growing visibility of blended learning activity, the report’s title changed to Keeping Pace with K–12 Online and Blended Learning. This was not a change that we took lightly, for several reasons. The evidence showed that online learning, when done well, was transformative because it offered new options to students. Students without access to a wide range of courses in their regular schools could now take the additional courses online. Students who could not attend a physical school could now enroll in an online school. These online options did not necessarily need to be better or more attractive than their classroom counterparts, because they weren’t replacing or competing with existing classroom courses. To use the terminology created by Clayton Christensen, online courses and schools primarily served the needs of non-consumers–students who did not have access to the course or school they were seeking as the best fit for their needs.

Blended learning’s goal differs in that it does seek to replace existing classes already offered in the school by improving upon the existing traditional classroom experience. From the outset, research and analysis of blended learning activities has been challenging. If one defines blended learning as any combination of digital learning and face-to-face instruction, then blended learning implementations have infinite permutations, making it extremely difficult to identify and study these activities in all but a small number of newly formed, stand-alone, blended schools or classrooms. Organizations such as the Clayton Christensen Institute have made significant contributions toward creating blended learning definitions and categories of blended models, but while this has been highly useful, there is little consistency among the many interpretations of these definitions by schools for their programs.

To further complicate matters—and create a need to expand the research—the broader digital learning landscape continues to shift in many ways, including the exploding growth of new digital learning technologies and products, the changing and merging ways these resources are used, and shifting levels of usage within the various sectors of K–12 education.

With these changes in mind, in 2014 we are continuing to report on categories that we have described in the past, such as state virtual schools and online charter schools. In addition, the report looks in more depth (compared to past years) at digital learning activity in school districts and in charter schools, particularly at the cases that are not fully online.

The next blog post will explore Keeping Pace research into digital learning activity in school districts.

Keeping Pace webinar with iNACOL Wednesday 11/12

The Keeping Pace research team spent last week at the iNACOL symposium in Palm Springs. Our two sessions at the conference, and one webinar, generated many questions and comments that I will be weaving into upcoming posts that will explore key findings from the report.

We have several additional presentations planned, starting with a webinar on Wednesday 11/12 at 2ET with iNACOL. The webinar is free but pre-registration is required and available at

On November 17 I’ll be presenting at Michigan Virtual University’s online learning symposium in Lansing, MI. Details are at

On November 18 at 2ET I will be co-presenting a webinar sponsored by Connections Learning with Daniel Mahlandt, Coordinator of Virtual Education for the Ephrata Area School District. That session will focus on district-level digital learning activity. Registration is at

Finally, on December 10 Michigan Virtual University is sponsoring a KP webinar. Details are at


Keeping Pace 2014 to be released at iNACOL symposium next week

Join our KP presentation and panel discussions on Wednesday November 5.

Keeping Pace with K12 Digital Learning 2014 will be released next week at the iNACOL symposium. If you are attending the conference you will receive the print copy in your registration bag. We will soon be updating the KP website ( with the 2014 report for convenient download as well.

We will have two Keeping Pace sessions on Wednesday November 5th. At 9:45am PST KP researchers will be presenting on the digital learning landscape, including key trends and issues. At 4:30pm we will host a panel discussion that will include researchers and KP sponsors for a conversation about the state of digital learning in 2014. Although both sessions will include plenty of time for questions from session attendees, the morning will be focused on presenting findings and the afternoon will be more of a discussion about implications and views from practitioners and providers.

We are also going to be involved in several other presentations at the iNACOL symposium that will use Keeping Pace findings:

  • Wednesday at 1:30—we will join presenters from iNACOL, Florida Virtual School, and elsewhere for a discussion about policies related to personalized learning.
  • Thursday at 11:30am—we will co-present with researchers from Michigan and California looking more closely into the digital learning landscape in those states (which are among the best-studied) and comparing them to national trends.
  • Thursday at 2pm—we will join researchers from Arizona State University, the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, University of Central Florida, and Grand Valley State University in a general discussion about research into digital learning and the use of data in K-12 online learning.

In addition, in the coming weeks we will continue posting highlights from KP 2014 to the blog, including responding to questions from the Symposium sessions. We will also be presenting several webinars in November and January.


Does online learning research have to be new to be useful?

A new report from the National Education Policy Center reviews the Harvard study of Florida Virtual School outcomes that we discussed in an earlier blog post. The press release headline summarizes its conclusion: “Online Education Report Offers Little New or Useful.

I found the headline to be as interesting as the rest of the report, because the headline reflects a flaw in the way that some researchers think about the impact of research on policy and practice.

Academic researchers base their careers on creating and publishing new knowledge. With few exceptions, study findings must be new to be valuable. Research begins with an exhaustive literature review, to ensure that new studies build on and do not replicate existing knowledge, except in the cases where a study is explicitly meant to test existing data or ideas. Indeed, research that attempts to confirm or refute existing studies tends to get much less attention than the original research, even if the new study rebuts previous findings.

Most of the personal and professional accolades that researchers strive for are based on finding new knowledge. Nobody in research-based institutions (e.g. R1 universities) builds a career on publicizing or confirming existing knowledge. Indeed, findings that may be presented in a new way or to a new audience are often dismissed as not being “new,” even if the original knowledge may have been known to only a tiny sliver of academics and few others. Hence the assumption behind the headlines: the findings aren’t new, and therefore they are not useful.

But this view is research-centric and does not reflect the way that much of policy and practice operates. Policymakers and practitioners tend to hear about new studies because of media reports (directly or via colleagues, re-posts, and similar), not because they are perusing academic journals. Media outlets, however, rarely run a story about a study that is several years old, even if the findings still hold true. And in my experience most people have a bias towards information that has been published recently. A study from 2014 is valued more highly than one from 2009, and in a rapidly changing field such as digital learning the period for which studies are considered relevant tends to be short. Therefore a study that explores the outcomes and benefits of online courses is valuable to policymakers and practitioners, whether or not it is entirely new.

The concluding sentence of the report summary states “Given the limitations of research such as this new study, researchers have moved beyond simply investigating whether one medium is better than the other and begun—and need to continue—investigating under what conditions K-12 online and blended learning can be effectively designed, delivered, and supported.” I agree with that statement—but neither the statement nor the NEPC report refute the value of the Harvard study for policy and practice.

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