We at Evergreen have been fortunate to be associated with many of the people and organizations responsible for the development of K-12 online, blended, and digital learning in the U.S. The account here captures only some of those people and organizations and, we hope, provides a glimpse into the course of online learning over the past two decades. 

Evergreen was incorporated by John Watson in summer 2000. John had recently left eCollege, where he planned and helped launch the K-12 division of the company, called eClassroom. Prior to his two years at eCollege John had worked in experiential education with students in a field science school in Colorado and in other non-classroom educational settings. He also held positions as a biologist and environmental consultant, building on his biology undergraduate degree, MS in natural resources policy, and MBA.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s eCollege was one of several hubs of activity in K-12 online learning. Because eCollege provided services along with a learning management system, it was used by several of the first state virtual schools, which were some of the earliest and most prominent K-12 online learning entities. After John left, Justin McMorrow and Chris Rapp launched the Virtual School Symposium for K-12 online schools, especially state virtual schools such as the Kentucky Virtual School which had been started by Linda Pittenger. VSS was essentially an eClassroom user conference but welcomed entities that were not yet using eClassroom. VSS was small but highly successful, and several years later when the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) was formed—and later became iNACOL—VSS was purchased from eClassroom to become the iNACOL Symposium, which later grew to become the largest K-12 online and blended learning conference in the United States.

When John left eCollege he was working as a sole consultant, but two early projects set the course for the company that would become the Evergreen Education Group and led to the creation of the team over several years.

First, in the late 1990s UC Santa Cruz had developed the University of California College Prep (UCCP) Initiative under the leadership of Francisco Hernandez. In the early 2000s Dr. Hernandez became interested and involved with other state virtual schools and commissioned three consultants (John along with Gordon Freedman and Rob Darrow) to study whether UCCP could grow in California and whether it could play a role at the national level. This study led to one of the early meetings attended by many K-12 online learning pioneers including Linda Pittenger, Julie Young, and Liz Pape, and discussions about creating a new organization focused on K-12 online learning. This and other meetings led to the creation of NACOL/iNACOL several years later. Because John had been involved with key people in this group both via eCollege and UCCP, he was hired to facilitate the first strategic planning meetings to plan and form iNACOL. That began a long working relationship between iNACOL and Evergreen.

Second, in 2003 Stevan Kalmon of the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) approached John about doing a study of online learning policy in Colorado. That study grew into a national report supported in the first year by CDE, the North Central Regional Educational Lab, Illinois Virtual School, and Wisconsin Virtual School. Matt Wicks, then of Illinois Virtual School and now with Pearson, and Dawn Nordine, then and now with the Wisconsin Virtual School, were instrumental in developing the report along with Steven Kalmon, and Cathy Gunn of NCREL. Originally the plan was for the study to go just to the funders, but Cathy saw the potential for a larger release and put extra funds into a basic design and printing. Someone at NCREL—we will never know who—suggested that the report be named Keeping Pace—and that report was the first of more than a dozen annual reports and special issues that helped shape K-12 online and blended learning.

These lines of work—with the organization that became iNACOL, the Keeping Pace reports, and the association with many of the key people and organizations leading the early moves into online learning—placed Evergreen well within the set of colleagues, friends, and (mostly) friendly competitors who defined the first decade or so of K-12 innovation as the field shifted from state virtual schools and statewide online charter schools to increased blended learning and district-level activity. Evergreen’s work shifted and grew as well. For several years Evergreen helped districts and individual schools implement online and blended learning programs. At other times Evergreen evaluated programs and moved into an external advisory role. We continued to report on digital learning and consult with and advise many of the state agencies, school districts, state virtual schools, and companies in the field.

For many years, online and blended learning were a focus of foundations, state agencies, politicians, and other people and organizations that collectively define and determine what types of activities and programs receive attention and funding. In recent years, some of that focus has shifted away from online and blended learning, and towards personalized learning, competency-based learning, and other areas of focus which may be linked to, but are separate from, digital learning.

We at Evergreen, however, are doubling down on digital. We have been watching the landscape for 20 years, and we don’t think that online and blended learning have yet come close to their potential to help students and schools. We are fully supportive of other areas of innovation such as mastery-based and competency-based learning, but we are choosing to remain where we have always been—because there is still much work to do. While competency-based learning focuses on raising the ceiling on innovation and what schools can achieve, we are focusing on helping the large number of schools, agencies, providers, and others who aren’t quite ready to reach for the frontiers of innovation, but are instead focused on what they can do now and in the near future to help schools and students.

To those ends, in 2018 and 2019 we have launched the Digital Learning Annual Conference and the Digital Learning Collaborative. We also continue to advise and consult directly with organizations in the K-12 digital learning space.

In the past 20 years we have seen, heard from, and spoken with countless students, teachers, and school leaders who have supported or been supported by digital learning, but we know that many more students and teachers haven’t yet felt the benefits that are possible. We intend to continue down our path, along with our colleagues, clients and friends, towards fulfilling the real promise of K-12 online, blended, and digital learning.