It’s really hard to get a handle on the growth of online education. Schools are experimenting with all forms of it in a very decentralized way. One teacher might assign a Khan Academy video to a class one day for homework. Another school might contract with a for-profit online course provider, such as Apex, to provide electives that it can’t offer. No one is counting all this.
At the The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNacol) conference at the end of October 2013, the Evergreen Education Group put out its 10th report, Keeping Pace, attempting to track online education among kindergarten through high school students in the United States.
Evergreen found it impossible to compile data on so-called “blended learning,” where students learn some of the time from a teacher in traditional classroom and some of the time from a computer.
But over the past four to five years, Evergreen has been keeping consistent statistics on the number of U.S. states that run their own online schools and student participation in them. It’s hard to know how much this state-sponsored online education represents. “We know there’s a lot of activity out there not being reported,” said Amy Murin, the lead researcher at Evergreen who wrote the report. In particular, many large school districts have launched their own online courses.
But the data we do have show a steady growth in K-12 students enrolling in full-time online schools or taking individual classes online. At the same time, some states are getting out of the business of creating and running online schools and courses.
I created a couple time-series charts using data that Murin helped me pluck from the past five years. This first chart below shows that U.S. students in traditional k-12 schools enrolled in almost 750,000 online courses through their state during the 2012-13 school year. That’s more than double the 320,000 online enrollments four years ago in the 2008-09 school year. These are individual classes, generally not offered by the student’s school, such as Mandarin Chinese or AP Physics. At the same time, states are getting out of the business of running these courses. A peak of 31 states offered online supplemental courses for public school students in 2009-10. Currently, in the 2013-14 school year, only 25 states are offering them. But it’s quite possible that district and private programs are replacing these decommissioned state-run classes. Louisiana, one of the states that dropped out, is redirecting funds to external providers. By contrast, Connecticut closed its down because not enough students had enrolled.
This second chart shows a slower, but similar trend for full-time online students. Students who are not in traditional schools, but receiving all of their education online has grown about 50 percent, from 200,000 students in 2009 to 310,000 students last year. And the number of states offering full-time virtual schools has dropped from a peak of 31 in 2011 to 29 in the current school year. This doesn’t necessarily mean that states are abandoning online education.