A recently released report has taken a closer look at K-12 online education throughout the United States and found that to use digital tools effectively, we need more data and better analysis.
The report, Keeping Pace with K-12 Digital Learning, examines the need for high-quality data pertaining to the digital learning tools and methods used by students. Three predictors of how likely the strength of a state's digital learning opportunities are, according to the report, student choice at the state level, student choice at course level and the strength of charter school laws.
In addition, the report states that more children than in the past are capable of accessing digital learning opportunities, which includes online and blended learning. However, many state policies and other such factors place limitations on that ability.
"Digital learning is not really new anymore, [although] it continues to be innovative in all sorts of ways," said John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group and the report's main author.
Previously, digital learning activity happened at the state level for the most part, through outlets such as state online learning schools.
"Those types of programs and schools continue to be critical," Watson said. "But we're also seeing an increasing amount of activity happening at the local level, with digital learning being used by school districts in traditional physical schools at the local level. Much of that activity is blending online and onsite components–that's the overall trend we're seeing."
Watson continued in his report by outlining four main reasons for schools to increase their digital learning opportunities and blend them into their teaching and learning. Doing so, he says, will improve student access to schooling options, allow students to reach their potential in terms of achievement, increase technology skills believed to be needed for college and career-readiness in students, and scaling digital learning opportunities to reduce costs.
While most districts do use some digital learning tools and resources, there is a broad range when it comes to the extent, type and goal of that use across districts.
Digital content and tools are also used differently across grade levels. While high school students have access to fully online courses and a variety of forms of digital content, elementary school students use more topic-focused and collaborative digital learning through self-paced interactive activities. Middle school students tend to use a mixture of both types of digital learning. Younger students are more likely to use interactive and skill-based lessons, while the older students will begin to look into other forms of online learning opportunities.
The authors continue to discuss three policies which, when compiled together, indicate the level of digital learning opportunities within a state.
The authors write that fully online schools typically "exist in states in which students are able to choose a school from outside their district of residence," relying on statewide student populations for their enrollment. According to the report, Arizona is at the top of national rankings concerning online education growth due to their emphasis on school choice.
Charter school laws play an important role as well, as those schools play a role in digital learning depending on whether that are fully online schools or use digital content and tools to create an environment of innovative instruction.
According to the authors, "perhaps the single most important emerging issue related to online learning" is course-level student choice. Taking a look at the Florida Virtual School model, the report says "if students are freely given the option to take an online course, many hundreds of thousands will choose to do so."
Looking at school-level student choice and charter school levels together "largely determine the states that have fully online schools operating across the entire state. Thirty states have these types of schools, and across all states 316,320 students attended these schools in SY 2013–14, an annual increase of 6.2 percent. Many of the fully online schools are charter schools, and others are schools run by districts that attract students from other districts across the state," according to the report.
The report also mentions other policies which are important components to digital learning, including funding, computer-based assessments and information privacy laws.