A deeper look at the NCES report

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recently released its first look at data collected from 2,150 districts around the country in its report Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009-10.  The data are incredibly valuable because this is the first large-scale, large-sample effort to collect such information since 2004-05, when it was updated from 2002-03. More recent numbers that have been reported have been estimates that have either been based on very small sample sizes, with likely response biases, or estimates that did not report methods at all. This report therefore is critical in providing a number—albeit imperfect—with a far greater level of accuracy than we have had recently. First, the headlines:

  • 55% of the 2,150 responding districts reported having students enrolled in distance education courses.
  • These districts reported total course enrollments of 1.8 million.
  • These numbers are not just for online courses, because they include all distance courses. However, 90% of districts reported using Internet-delivered courses, and 77% of the districts reported that synchronous or asynchronous Internet-based courses were the primary delivery method for their distance education courses.
  • 74% of the enrollments were in high school courses, 9% in middle school/junior high, and 4% in elementary school.
  • The southeast region of the country was most likely to enroll students in distance education courses.
  • 62% of districts reported having students enrolled in credit recovery distance education courses.

The report defines distance education courses as “courses offered to elementary and secondary school students regularly enrolled in the district that meet all of the following criteria: (1) are credit granting; (2) are technology delivered; and (3) have the instructor in a different location than the students and/or have course content developed in, or delivered from, a different location than that of the students.”

Digging deeper into these results, what does this information mean in the context of the landscape as we know it? A few thoughts on likely implications:

  1. In the absence of a specific definition of whether an enrollment is defined as one semester or one year, it seems that the 1.8 million enrollment estimate is for a mix of one-semester and two-semester courses. Keeping Pace enrollment numbers are usually for semester-long courses, so the NCES and Keeping Pace numbers are not directly comparable.
  2. Although the survey asked districts to include charter schools, the numbers suggest that few or no full-time online charter schools are included in the results. Some of these online schools are chartered by entities other than districts, so they would certainly not have been captured. If, however, a significant number of full-time online students were included in the sample, then it would change our understanding of the implications of these results.
  3. The survey likely does not capture blended learning or other courses where the teacher and students are in the same location but the content is delivered online, because the definition from the survey is likely to be interpreted to focus on teacher remoteness and survey respondents would not have self-identified as offering “distance learning” courses.
  4. A large percentage of districts have few students in distance courses. More than 50% of districts reported 30 enrollments or fewer; more than 75% of districts reported 100 enrollments or fewer. As a result, it seems likely that most districts are not offering a comprehensive catalog of courses, but rather are meeting a specific need using a provider from outside the district.

Keeping Pace is able to collect detailed enrollment information from certain segments, including state virtual schools and most full-time online schools. However, the first trend we noted in this year’s report was that single district programs are the most quickly growing segment in online learning, and it is also the most difficult segment from which to collect data as the programs are typically housed within traditional schools and do not have separate reporting structures. As a result—even with questions about the specific details—this information is incredibly valuable.