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State Digital Education Programs Grow, But Disparities Persist

Enrollment in state-run online schools is on the rise, though broad gaps remain in the availability of digital resources and tools across the country's large, mid-sized, and small school systems, a new report concludes.

The report, "Keeping Pace With K-12 Digital Learning,"  is the eleventh edition of a nationwide review of online policies released by the Evergreen Education Group, a Durango, Colo.-based consulting company. The report describes a variety of public and private entities, including Connections Education, a commercial provider of online education; the Michigan Virtual School; the National Association of Independent Schools, and the Texas Education Agency. 

One of the takeaways from the report is that, despite the seeming universality of digital education in the nation's schools, access to those resources varies enormously, said John Watson, an author of the report and the CEO of the Evergreen group.

Vast differences persist in students' access to technology, digital content, and communications services, the report notes. Some restrictions on growth are rooted in government policy: Twenty states, for instance, bar open-enrollment in online schools, and many do not allow students' choice of individual courses, according to the report. (Policymakers in some of those states have questioned the academic quality and oversight of online schools, or complained that they siphon resources from traditional brick-and-mortar schools.)

"We're still at the point, in terms of access, where there are big gaps," Watson said in an interview, and overall growth in online use "hasn't filled the gaps yet."

Other takeaways from the report:

  • Thirty states had "fully online" schools that served students from across the state during the 2013-14 academic year. Those schools enroll a collective 315,000 students—an increase of 6 percent over the previous year;
  • "State virtual schools" are in operation in 26 states, providing supplemental online courses to students. Those schools serve a total of 740,000 students, about the same number as the year before;
  • The broadest array of online options are found in high schools, which in some cases offer courses taught virtually, customized to student needs. Perhaps not surprisingly, digital tools are used in a more limited way in elementary schools, with resources typically focused on improving subject-specific classroom content.
  • Despite the interest in college education in massive, open online courses, "MOOCs" have had only a minimal impact on K-12 so far. A few states, including Florida and Ohio, have begun to experiment with policies that recognize MOOCs at the pre-college level, but they're the exception, the report says. In Ohio, an e-learning platform funded by the state, ilearnOhio, guides K-12 students to MOOCs, but not for academic credit, the authors say.

The use of digital resources is widespread across the majority of school districts with 25,000 or more students, though policies can vary at the individual school level, particularly in systems that grant local school autonomy, the authors say.

But the picture is much different in districts with no more than 2,500 students. The least populated among them may have "little or no digial learning due to lack of availabilty of digital learning delivery capability, and/or Internet bandwidth constraints," the report states.

It's also rare for those systems to have personnel devoted to the critical work of managing devices and infrastructure, or overseeing digital learning, the authors say.

While the estimates of online school enrollment come from data collected by the authors, some other conclusions, such as those about digital gaps between districts of different sizes, are based more on observations and discussions with school system officials, Watson said. 


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