This school year, incoming freshmen in the Kenosha Unified School District have another requirement to fulfill as they look ahead to graduation: online learning.
“We had very little resistance to it,” said Daniel M. Tenuta, the assistant superintendent for secondary schools for the 23,000-student Wisconsin district. “I think people realize that almost every single college student will take an online course. It makes sense to get kids up to speed.”
While some states, such as Alabama, Florida, Idaho, and Michigan, have laws requiring that students take at least one online course before graduation, Kenosha is one of a small number of districts adopting the mandate on their own, without state pressure.
“It’s a slowly building trend,” said Butch Gemin, a senior consultant with the Durango, Colo.-based Evergreen Education Group, a consulting company that tracks virtual education trends. In some parts of the country, states have indicated they may move to encourage or require online learning sometime in the future, but “the districts are running ahead,” Mr. Gemin said.
Officials in districts that have independently adopted such a requirement say their aim is to prepare students for higher education and the workplace by introducing online learning in a supportive, less high-stakes environment. A 2011 study from the Newburyport, Mass.-based Sloan Consortium, which works to integrate online education into higher education, found that 6.1 million college students took an online class in fall 2010, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.
Other school districts are banking on saving money through online learning, Mr. Gemin said.
In addition, as more districts establish their own virtual schools and online offerings, they must make sure they have a steady flow of customers. The 2011 “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning” report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or INACOL, found that single-district online programs were the fastest-growing model for online learning.
District online learning requirements “may be a creative way of increasing demand and even legitimizing a district’s decision to create their own program,” said Matthew Wicks, the chief operating officer for the Vienna, Va.-based INACOL.
In Kenosha, for instance, the district plans to identify courses that qualify under the new requirement through the district-created virtual charter school. The district will also identify face-to-face courses with a significant online component that could qualify as well.
College, Career Readiness
Elizabeth Loftis, 16, said she was nervous the first time she took an online class through her 10,500-student Putnam County, Tenn. district. But the personal-finance course was a graduation requirement and it was only offered online.
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics
At first, she didn’t know how to access what she needed in the virtual course, but with support from an in-school computer-lab facilitator, along with an online instructor, Ms. Loftis quickly mastered the system and found she excelled at online learning.
She eventually used the district’s other online courses to skip a grade; she’ll be a senior this school year and will take six credit hours online at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville.
“I probably wouldn’t have done the classes at Tech if I hadn’t taken online classes in high school,” she said. “In college, they’re not going to give you an extra day to do something or be as understanding if you have computer problems.”
Putnam County’s decision to turn a Tennessee graduation requirement that students take a personal-finance course into an online requirement was a deliberate one, said district Director Jerry S. Boyd, the system’s schools chief. The district began buying online courses in 2008 and is now developing its own courses, too.
At first, the district faced challenges, such as providing enough computer-lab space and Internet connections. Once those problems were solved, Mr. Boyd said, district officials felt it was important to require all students, starting with the 2013 graduating class, to take an online course.
“It’s a good gateway to online learning,” he said. “All of our students are going to need that opportunity once they leave high school and go on to college or into the business world.”
Mr. Boyd said he’s hoping to introduce such an experience at an even earlier level, with a six- to nine-week mandatory online course about the use of technology for middle school students.
Creating Mobile Options
In the 105,000-student Memphis city school system in Tennessee, officials were also concerned about making sure every student had the access needed when the district decided two years ago to require students to take an online course before graduation.
The district got creative, said Cleon L. Franklin, the director of instructional technology. It provided computer-lab time before and after school and coordinated with community organizations, such as libraries, to make sure students could use computers there.
Even so, Mr. Franklin said, “we’re in an urban environment, and not everyone has a computer with a high-speed connection.”
School officials noted, however, that nearly every parent had a cellphone with a data plan. So this school year, the district added Blackboard mobile, a platform from Washington-based educational technology company Blackboard Inc. that allows students to access online courses through mobile phones.
Shonda M. Keys, an online teacher for the Memphis district who currently is instructing seniors in language arts, said students are intimidated at first by online learning and don’t always realize there’s a live teacher on the other side. High school virtual learning is a way to allow students to experience online courses in a way that’s not so high-stakes, she pointed out.
“The first day you open your inbox, you’ll have 150 assignments and only three are done right,” she said. “But the kids are not afraid to ask for help, and this gets them more comfortable.”
The 8,300-student Marietta, Ga., city schools, a charter school district, had similar motivations for adopting an online learning requirement this year, despite the fact that there was no mandate from the state to do so.
The district had already pushed the boundaries in use of technology: students were permitted to bring their own digital devices to school, officials had upgraded wireless access in school buildings, and the district was already using online courses to help struggling students catch up and graduate on time.
While the district did have to add computer labs and facilitators to provide support, Superintendent Emily Lembeck believes the move could ultimately cut costs.
“It has the potential to help us be really conservative with our funds and possibly save funds in the future,” she said.
Right now, the Marietta district will require only that students take an online health course as a graduation requirement, but it will start adding additional online courses for students to take electives and regular courses. Students could enroll in multiple online classes at a time, giving them the option of graduating earlier, which could also help the district save money.
Ms. Lembeck said the approach is something other districts should consider. “Any system can do this if they plan and have the ability to provide the resources,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Districts Make Virtual Courses a Graduation Requirement