No one has been tracking how many students learn online in California.
At least until now, according to Brian Bridges, director of the California Learning Resource Network, a state-funded technology service that the Stanislaus County Office of Education administers.
In June, the network previewed initial results of its California eLearning Census, which for the first time paints a detailed picture of online learning in the Golden State. In the spring, the California Learning Resource Network sent online surveys to the state's 1,634 K-12 school districts and direct-funded charter schools. Thirty percent (486) responded.
Until 2011, when the National Center for Education Statistics published "Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009-10," not much data existed on online learning . And the numbers that had been quoted before were extrapolated off extremely small sample sizes and were likely biased, said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, which produced a comprehensive national report on online and blended learning called "Keeping Pace 2011."
The National Center for Education Statistics study helped give a better idea of the national landscape of online learning, and the California Learning Resource Network's effort has been valuable as a state-level picture, Watson said.
California eCensus results show that 45 percent of school districts and charters offer some online learning options. Bridges didn't expect that number to be so high.
Most of them take the blended learning approach, a combination of face-to-face and online instruction. And a smaller number offer online classes full-time.
"What we are seeing is that fully online is an important part of the landscape, but blended [learning] is going to be, and already is, a larger number of students," Watson said.
|Type of online learning||No. of Students||Number of Respondents||Percent of Responding Districts||Percent of Responding Charters|
|Summer 2011 Virtual and Blended Learning||23,556||90||78||22|
While online programs were rooted in distance learning, more school districts across the nation are offering online and blended learning programs, Watson said. Because school districts serve local students, they don't need to reach across large geographic areas. Instead, they're reaching local students through a combination of online and face-to-face learning.
The California numbers for virtual and blended learning match up with a prediction that Michael B. Horn and Heather Clayton Staker made in their 2011 report, "The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning." They said home schooling and full-time virtual learning will serve a maximum of 10 percent of students.
Of the schools trying out blended learning, the most popular model is the self-blend. The self-blend model allows students to take Advanced Placement or world language classes that the school district may not offer.
"I think the self-blend will always have to be popular because no high school in California can ever offer a broad range of AP courses or world languages," Bridges said.
The hybrid virtual school model came in second. This model involves independent study students taking online courses at home and meeting with a teacher once a week on campus.
While 45 percent of respondents said they offer online learning options, the majority of these California districts have fewer than 100 students learning online.
"That really tells me districts are kind of tip-toeing into this and mainly using the self-blend or even the independent study model, and I think that's good because I see districts making mistakes already, and this is partially anecdotal from a lot of discussions I have with districts," Bridges said.
Districts often choose an online course because it looks pretty and they receive a good sales presentation, Bridges said. But halfway through the year, they discover their students don't like it, it's not motivating, or it's mostly text. Then a district compounds its mistake by buying another "pretty" course that ends up in the same place.
"I can't tell you how many people I've talked to who are now looking for a third vendor because they never went through a careful process of vetting the content," Bridges said.
The smartest school districts, such as Riverside Unified, test online courses with a small group and decide to scale back, cancel, move forward or try something different based on the results. They don't jump in blindly.
Typically when schools start offering online options, they use packaged online courses from outside providers. In the survey, respondents used content publishers Apex Learning and Odysseyware the most, followed by Cyber High, Aventa (K12.com) and K12.com.
At the beginning, packaged courses makes some sense because they allow schools to learn while others do the work for them.
"The mistake would be to stay with that turnkey and not invent a solution that meets your particular situation's needs," Bridges said.
In both California and nationally, approximately 50 percent of school districts offer online learning options. But a look further into the numbers shows that many of them are offering options to a small number of students, Watson said.
"They are working with somebody outside the district to provide those opportunities, which certainly can be a good path for a district to take, but it suggests to me that they haven't yet really made those programs their own," Watson said.
That will change as more school districts "own" their programs and take a higher-level approach to online learning, Watson said.