Since the year 2000, when Ohio's online school opened its virtual doors for the first time, the number of students who take classes entirely over the internet has grown twelve-fold. Today the state's virtual academies and online charters play host to over 30,000 kids who have chosen to forgo the typical classroom environment in favor of setting their own schedule and learning from home.
In the U.S. only Arizona boasts a higher number of students taking courses online full-time, according to a report by Evergreen Education Group.
Last year the Cleveland Plain Dealer looked at the online school phenomenon in Ohio and discovered that every single one of the state's 97 school districts had at least some students who chose an online approach. The enrollment numbers ranged from a "handful" in some districts to as many as 1,500 in Cleveland. About 90% of all Ohio online learners took classes from one of seven statewide online schools, while the remainder attended virtual academies with a narrower, more local focus — like the charter school operating in Akron that boasts a student body of 1,000 area students.
Although they are scattered around the state, the online students combined would make up the third-largest district in Ohio — about the size of the Cincinnati schools. All the online schools are charters, independently operated but publicly funded.
NPR looked at Ohio as part of its State Impact series and predicted that this kind of approach, which involves removing a student from the classroom environment entirely, could be only the first step in the integration of online education into the state's school system. Recently passed legislation encourages traditional schools to explore how "blended" education might be used going forward to improve student achievement. Blended learning involves mixing the traditional classroom environment with an online education component. Governor John Kasich believes that blended learning could be the key to extracting the maximum benefits from both online and face-to-face instruction.
Still, the state's future virtual education plans do not include heedless expansion. In 2005, Ohio imposed a moratorium on new online schools that will remain in place until 2013 when 5 online schools will be able to begin operating. So far, no applicants have come forward to compete for one of the five slots.
The issue seems to be lack of standards. The Ohio legislature has been moving slowly on designing a set of guidelines for overseeing and monitoring the performance of virtual academies, which has likely halted interest from prospective operators.
And for several years, Ohio legislators have postponed establishing rules about how online schools should teach and be evaluated. Last year's state budget set a new deadline for making those rules: If the legislature doesn't take action by January, standards set by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning will automatically take effect, potentially introducing new rules for how the schools must operate.