Online learning activity in U.S. K-12 schools

(The following is excerpted and slightly adapted from Keeping Pace 2015) A previous post looked at the digital learning landscape generally, and in particular traced the roots of today’s online and blended learning to both distance education courses and classroom-based computer-aided instruction. Subsequent posts will explore key sectors across K-12 public education. These definitions, sectors, and categories are not naturally and clearly delineated, and as such Keeping Pace imposes taxonomy on a discipline that is indistinct and chaotic. The classifications are not 100% accurate and discrete, but are necessary to efficiently explore and explain the field.

Easier to capture are the basic digital learning use cases, because a few types of general use cases, with variations, describe the large majority of digital learning activity.

  • Hundreds of thousands of students are attending full-time online schools that provide their entire education. A substantial subset of these students (perhaps 20%) was formerly homeschooled, but by enrolling in a public online school these students have become public school students. Other students were in traditional public schools, and now are attending online schools because they have medical or behavioral issues, are engaged in a time-consuming pursuit such as arts or sports, or have not been academically successful in a physical school and are seeking a different mode of instruction. Most fulltime online schools are charter schools that enroll students from across entire states, but a growing number are being run by districts or regional service agencies that enroll students from within a defined boundary.
  • Millions of students are taking supplemental online courses while attending a physical school. Many of these—the exact number is unknown—are recovering credits. Others are taking advanced, honors, or dual enrollment online courses that are not available as traditional courses. Still others are taking courses that are offered at their physical school, but are taking them online as an extra class, or over the summer, in order to gain scheduling flexibility by freeing a class period during their school day. The extent to which the student’s enrolling school supports the online courses varies. In some schools the student is supported with a room, computer, and mentor. At the other end of the spectrum, some students take the online courses from home with no support from their physical school. Student success in online courses correlates with local school support.
  • An unknown number of students are attending hybrid schools that combine a significant amount of online instruction with a significant amount of face-to-face instruction with a teacher or mentor. The same companies supporting full-time online schools run some of these hybrid schools. Other hybrid schools have their roots in alternative education programs that preceded the spread of online courses. These schools often serve students who are at risk of dropping out, or have dropped out of a traditional school and returned to public education via the alternative program.

In addition to these examples that include a substantial element of online learning, countless further examples of digital learning exist as well. In these additional instances, teachers are using digital tools and resources—most of which are online—in their classrooms. These include the use of websites; Google Apps for Education; countless other software applications for math, reading, and other subjects; classroom management software and learning management systems; and computers, clickers, interactive whiteboards, and other technology products in physical classrooms. The most successful of these educational applications of technology have changed school models and instructional practices, and are worthy of more study than has been done of them. But the 2015 Keeping Pace report focuses on schools, programs, and courses that have a substantial online element. Many of them have an onsite component as well, meaning that they fit the most commonly used definition of blended learning.

Traditional public schools represent by far the largest sector of K–12 education, and as such they are the largest user of online learning. Nearly all school districts are using online learning at some level. Most of this usage is of supplemental online courses, with smaller numbers of students in hybrid and fully online schools.

Many of the students taking supplemental online courses are in courses offered by state virtual schools. In SY 2014–15 state virtual schools in 24 states, representing 40% of the population of the United States, served over 462,000 students who took a total of 815,000 semester-long courses.

Six in ten public school students live in states that don’t have state virtual schools, and these students are taking supplemental online courses as well. For the first time this year, Keeping Pace surveyed a broader range of suppliers of online courses. These are primarily private companies that sell online courses to districts nationwide, ranging from large, long-established publishers to companies that launched to create online courses and schools. Based on extrapolations from these supplier surveys, and additional data available from a few states (published reports and state databases), several school districts, and other sources, we estimate another 2.2 million students taking a total of about 3.8 million online courses. These are mostly in addition to the state virtual school numbers. Together, they sum to about 4.5 million supplemental online course enrollments.

These data provide insight into online course activity at a national level that has never been published. Keeping Pace analyzed a representative sample of several million course enrollments to look at how online course usage breaks down by major subject areas. The core subject areas of language arts, math, science and social studies make up four of the top five, with “electives and other” coming in at number three. These data support the anecdotal evidence that schools will often select elective online courses for students that the school does not offer. The number of world languages courses is lower than many observers might expect, suggesting that the proverbial example of a rural student taking a Mandarin course, while important to the student, is not nearly as common as core subjects and other electives. (Click on the image for a closer look.)

courses by subject
courses by subject

Charter schools make up less than 6% of total enrollments in the U.S., but full-time virtual charter schools accounted for the large majority of full-time online students and 3.3 million course enrollments. (This is in addition to the 4.5 million course enrollments mentioned previously). Two states opened virtual charter schools for the first time in fall 2015, and virtual charter schools continue to grow, although at a relatively slow pace. Numerous states have in place measures that hinder the growth of online charter schools, ranging from enrollment caps to additional reporting requirements to substantially lower funding, but no state that has allowed online charter schools has subsequently eliminated them.

Comparing the two sample data sets (supplemental online, and full time online students in virtual charter schools), demonstrates important grade level differences between these two segments. Supplemental is heavily skewed towards high school grades, and full-time virtual charter schools have a more even distribution among grade levels.

courses by grade level
courses by grade level

Private schools are a much smaller segment than public schools. The usage of online learning in private schools is generally lower than in public schools, but the use of supplemental online courses is growing. In some states, private school students have access to publicly funded online options on a limited basis; these may be used by students separately from their private school.

Homeschooled students use a variety of online resources that they procure, including courses that combine online delivery with curriculum shipped to students. Faith-based suppliers often provide these. In some states homeschooled students also have access to publicly funded supplemental online courses and full-time online schools. As homeschooled students take some publicly funded online courses or attend online public schools, the lines between homeschool and public school are blurring.

Future blog posts (most to be published after a holiday break) will look into these segments in more detail.