How Many Schools Offer Online-Only Classes? New Data Provide an Answer

By Catherine Gewertz — August 23, 2017 2 min read
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Twenty-one percent of U.S. schools offer courses that are entirely online, without any brick-and-mortar activities, and charter schools are much more likely than traditional schools to offer such courses, according to new federal data.

The Teacher and Principal Survey, released earlier this week by the National Center for Education Statistics, reports that in 2015-16, 20 percent of the country’s 83,500 traditional public schools and 29 percent of its 6,900 charter schools offered courses that took place exclusively in cyberspace.

Charter schools have waded in more deeply than have traditional schools, too. Fourteen percent of charter schools offer all their courses in an online-only format, compared to 5 percent of traditional public schools, the survey found.

The report marks the first time the NCES has collected data on the use of online-only courses.

“We recognized that schools were leveraging new technologies and wanted to be sure that [the teacher and principal survey] could capture their use,” Maura Spiegelman, who oversaw the latest survey for the NCES, said in an email to Education Week.

Unsurprisingly, online-only courses—also known as distance learning—are far more prevalent in high schools, and in combined middle/high schools, than in elementary schools. More than half of all high schools offer such courses, and nearly two-thirds of schools that span both middle and high school do so.

The use of online-only classes also tilts heavily toward large and small schools. About 44 percent of schools that enroll fewer than 100 students, or more than 1,000 students, offer such courses. In-between-sized schools varied: 13 percent of those enrolling 500 to 749 students, for instance, used online-only courses, and 29 percent of those with 100 to 199 students offered them.

Since the NCES hasn’t tracked the use of online-only courses before, there’s no way to quantify the change in recent years.

But a 2011 report by the NCES looked at a related measurement: school districts’ use of “distance enrollment” in 2009-10. That study doesn’t measure the same thing as the new one, since it focuses on the district, not the school, level, and it includes courses the newer study doesn’t, such as classes that are taken on the computer with a teacher or assistant in the room. But it’s an interesting measure of a related idea.

As my colleague Ben Herold reported, more than half of the country’s K-12 school districts said in the older study that they had students enrolled in a total of 1.8 million distance-education courses in 2009-10, and 59 percent of districts said they had students enrolled in “heavily Internet-based courses.”

The 2011 survey is one of 10 studies that Ben rounded up in a bid to sketch a portrait of online learning. A story he wrote for EdWeek’s annual Technology Counts report this year explores the landscape of online learning further, poking into questions—many of which are still unanswered—such as what kinds of students take online courses, and whether those courses offer quality learning.

Photo: Getty Images

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.