Southern States See Changes in Virtual Education

By Victoria O'Dea — March 28, 2013 2 min read
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Online learning has undergone a series of significant changes in recent years as it has entered the mainstream of K-12 education, concludes a new report.

The Southern Regional Education Board’s latest report about online learning examines the evolution of the region’s state-run virtual schools over the past seven years as well as examining how e-learning has grown at the district level.

Increased access to online learning, particularly at the district level, has states working to formalize their relationships with school districts to improve the delivery and quality of online courses—a trend Education Week explored in Technology Counts 2012, which focused on accountability in virtual education. This growth of virtual education at the district level is fueled largely by blended learning, an approach that mixes face-to-face instruction and online learning. Many of the companies that provide online courses now see blended learning, not full-time virtual education, as the key growth area for their companies.

At the same time, states are moving to require or encourage more K-12 students to take online courses, arguing that students need that experience to prepare to take virtual courses in college or for online training in the workplace. There are currently four SREB states—Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and West Virginia—that require students to take at least one online course to earn a high school diploma, and SREB expects that number to grow.

To make sure those opportunities exist for all students, several SREB states are developing legislation that will provide stable funding for virtual schools and online courses in the future.

One especially interesting statistic noted in the report is the recent decline in the number of state-run virtual schools. At one point, 15 of the 16 SREB states had a state-run virtual school. That number has dropped to 12 states since 2009, and it is expected to decrease further in the coming years.

At first glance, this decline in state-run virtual schools might look like a signal that online education is losing momentum. But, in reality, experts say what it really signals is a shift from state-oriented approaches to district programs that emphasize blended learning.

In a 2011 survey, the SREB found that 67 percent of the region’s districts coordinated or provided online learning options for their students, an increase from 55 percent in the previous school year.

In response, some states are reorganizing the role of their state-run virtual schools to address the growth of district-run online courses. Rather than focusing on providing online courses, the new state organizations would judge the quality of online courses and their providers, and act as a resource about online learning for district leaders, educators, parents, and students.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.