January 8, 2016

Online learning in public schools: data from states and districts

(The following is excerpted and slightly adapted from Keeping Pace 2015. For all graphics below, click on the image to see a larger version.)

The previous post discussed online learning activity in school districts, using information that Keeping Pace researchers had gathered from state virtual schools and other suppliers. Our understanding of the state of digital learning in public schools is bolstered by reports out of a few states that we cited, and a review of activity in a dozen districts.

Washington State has been tracking and reporting on online learning activity in more depth than most other states. The Online Learning Annual Report from Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reports on student motivation for taking supplemental online courses as reported by course registrars. The graphic below applies only for supplemental online course use and does not reflect the reasons full-time online students choose that option.

The data from Washington demonstrate how public schools offer a range of online options to meet student needs. In more than a quarter of all cases the online course was not available at the school, and in about 40% of cases the course was cited as helping the student to graduate, often by allowing the student to make up a previously failed class. In other cases, online courses helped alleviate scheduling conflicts, or were perceived as being a better fit for a student’s learning style than a traditional course.

We also looked at supplemental online course usage in a variety of school districts, ranging in size from small and medium to large communities, representing a total of over one million students. Most of these districts also enroll full-time students, but these are typically a very small percentage as compared to supplemental courses.

Of the twelve districts sampled, the majority of school and district supplemental online course enrollments are in high school grades 9–12, although there is growing activity in the middle schools. The use of online options in elementary school remains focused on the integration of online content and technology in the classroom. Based on the district programs studied, almost two-thirds (65%) of the online courses were taken by high school juniors and seniors. Summer 2015 enrollments accounted for 17% of the total course enrollments.

The district data also demonstrate the types of courses being taken by students. Core subjects of math, science, language arts and social studies combine for about 50% of course enrollments, among the districts studied. Electives made up the largest single category (when core subjects are divided into their separate categories), accounting for 33% of all course enrollments, with career and technical education at 7% and heath and physical education tallying 6% of the total.

District size can have implications for online learning. Smaller districts may have limitations in the availability of online learning delivery capability and/or Internet bandwidth constraints, but are often active users of online learning. In small districts with good Internet access, online courses are often an important method by which the district augments the smaller number of courses offered by the district’s own schools.

Larger districts with greater resources often take a more active role in developing online learning for schools in their districts. They are more likely to host their own learning management system, and internally create a portion of their course content. Large districts often use their own teachers to support online students, where mid- and small-sized districts are more likely to take advantage of online instruction from suppliers.

Small districts are unlikely to develop their own content or support a wide range of technology tools. Because the smallest districts have fewer full-time district level administrators, it is rare for them to have someone dedicated to managing digital learning across the district, with online learning responsibilities often falling to someone with less experience and expertise than a person in a similar position in a larger district.

Mid-size districts are more apt to have their own teachers developing digital content and courses, and teaching online courses, although most are using third-party suppliers of courses and teachers as well.

As part of the 2015 print report, Keeping Pace researchers profiled several of these districts. We will highlight several of these in upcoming posts.


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