Classroom Technology

Report Tracks Growth of Online Education

October 24, 2008 2 min read
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If you are tracking the rise of virtual schooling, you’ll find the best current information about the growth and maturing of this new way of teaching and learning in “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice,” sponsored by 10 groups and companies in the industry, including the North American Council for Online Learning.

The fifth annual edition of the report, released Oct. 23, gives evidence that growth continues apace, though not uniformly.

Programs that are supplemental to students’ enrollment in regular school are growing fastest overall, with one in three increasing enrollment by more than 40 percent last year, according to a survey of 114 online providers that was conducted for the report.

Among online programs that are full-time, however, the largest of those virtual education providers saw “no change” in the last year, a response defined as having “full time-equivalent” enrollments within 5 percent of the level of the previous year.

Still, of the 21 full-time online schools that did change in size, 17 grew larger. Of those 17, ten grew by 25 percent or more.

The day the report was released, I chatted with Mickey Revenaugh, a vice president of the Baltimore-based Connections Academy, a virtual school provider and sponsor of the report. She also co-authored an article in the report about online offerings for special education.

“The places where growth is not happening have nothing to do with lack of demand,” Revenaugh noted. “The lack of a sustainable, scalable funding mechanism is standing in the way of most programs that don’t seem to be growing very much.”

Looking at the online programs established by states, for example, most of those are funded by appropriations by state legislatures. As such, they are subject to the vagaries of state budgets. (And that status may put these programs into a politically vulnerable position, as states respond to the current economic crisis.)

By contrast, funding for the Florida Virtual School, which is experiencing rapid course enrollment growth, operates under the state’s per-pupil funding formula, just as regular school districts do. If a Florida student enrolls in an online course, the state pays for it.

Online Education as Disruptive Innovation

The report, of which John Watson, of Evergreen Consulting Associates, in Evergreen, Colo., was the principal author, also addresses the much-talked-about recent book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, by Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson, and Michael Horn.

In a business-school-style analysis, the book argues that online learning is a “disruptive innovation” that will cause a growth curve leading to more than half of U.S. high school courses being taught online by 2019.

But the report points out that K-12 education is a minefield of public funding and policy that may itself disrupt the smooth functioning of the model in the book.

Revenaugh said Disrupting Class is “very exciting to everybody in this field,” but “it is the futurist’s prerogative to present this picture of inevitable adoption and change.”

“As John pointed out in the report, the barriers of this kind of rapid adoption are real,” she said. “The idea that it will be half of all high school classes in 10 years from where we’re sitting right now seems a little bit of a stretch.”

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

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