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Online learning landscape becoming more regulated

By Arlene Borthwick
February 24, 2015
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The growth of online learning in PK-12 education has exploded in the past decade. The model has expanded from districts offering a few credit-recovery or enrichment classes to programs that provide a full slate of virtual learning coursework from numerous providers around the country. 

Understanding the K-12 online environment requires an awareness of state and federal policies and legislation that influence teacher qualifications, curriculum and accountability for student outcomes. To help you navigate this unfamiliar territory, we’ve compiled a list of answers to the most common questions.

Are online schools subject to the same standards as brick-and-mortar schools?

Quality control in online schools is similar to that of traditional schools. Full-time state virtual schools need to meet the same statewide testing requirements as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, including adequate yearly progress outlined in the No Child Left Behind Act. But each state does have slightly different rules and regulations regarding the selection of providers. For example:

  • In the state of Washington, the Digital Learning Department approves providers at all levels, whether course, program, district or multidistrict.
  • Louisiana relies on student achievement metrics to evaluate distance education providers. In addition, providers are required to meet standards set by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) for courses, teaching and programs.
  • Arizona providers must supply student survey data and information about how student achievement is measured.

Valerie Schmitz, an online instructor and charter school principal in Wisconsin, worries that cyberschools may focus solely on students’ academic needs while losing sight of social-emotional considerations. In addition to monitoring and measuring student academic progress, online teachers and virtual schools need to use web-based supports to meet the social-emotional needs of students.

Do online teachers face the same certification standards as their counterparts in traditional schools?

All states require some form of certification, usually a valid teaching license within the content area to teach the corresponding courses online.

Some states require cyberteachers to take online training themselves, which has created a boom in online teaching certification programs offered by colleges and universities. Here are some examples of certification programs:

  • Arizona State University offers a 15-credit-hour certificate based on standards developed by iNACOL.
  • Idaho has developed a PK-12 online teacher endorsement, which requires an eight-week online teaching internship or at least a year of successful experience as a teacher delivering curriculum online in grades PK-12.
  • Quality Matters, a provider of training for and evaluation of instructional design at the postsecondary level, has expanded into the K-12 arena with professional development for teachers and an automated course review tool.

Jhone Ebert, chief innovation and productivity officer for Clark County School District in Nevada, supports the need for teacher development. She recommends that preservice teachers experience working in online and blended learning environments so that they are adequately prepared to work in digital age classrooms. However, endorsements to assure online teaching expertise and cross-state teacher license reciprocity are remaining policy needs.

Do online courses address the Common Core and other competency-based standards?

During the 2012-13 academic year, North Carolina’s Virtual Public School worked to revise many courses to meet Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Because a majority of states now use CCSS, standardizing curriculum expectations across the nation may become a bit easier. Online options with standards or competency-based course outcomes can be accepted as part of high school diploma requirements in a variety of states. With policy changes under consideration, including seat-time waivers, iNACOL reports that “36 states are moving toward competency education.” Georgia’s virtual school is piloting coursework designed to focus on college and career readiness.

Schmitz, who worked as a school administration consultant for Wisconsin charter schools, says, “There seems to be a great interest and emergence in competency- based pathways among innovative educators.” According to her, “The most pressing policy area is simply in making conscientious, thoughtful legislation so that old practices do not undermine innovative efforts.”

What policies are states mandating? Is there a way to compare what’s happening from state to state?

Bill Tucker, in his article “The Muddled State of K-12 Virtual Learning Policy,” wrote that federal guidelines for online learning are limited at best, and state policy appears to be “muddled.” Often state education laws go into effect, only to be overturned a short time later.

For example, in 2013 the Wisconsin Legislature repealed an existing teacher training requirement. A similar about-face happened in Idaho when voters repealed legislation that included most of the previously approved online learning policies. A key resource for a quick overview of current state-level practices and policies is the annual Keeping Pace report, sponsored by iNACOL and other educational and corporate organizations.

Opportunities for student choice, funding formulas, and requirements to assure quality curricula, instruction and outcomes vary widely across the U.S. Here’s a breakdown of what’s happening in a handful of states:

Florida: State law requires online instruction to be available as a school choice option, that all courses be aligned with Florida standards and that districts provide local support to students enrolled in massive open online courses (MOOCs). The state grades full-time online schools and programs according to an accountability system, and outside vendors providing Florida-approved courses must also participate in the education performance accountability system. Recent legislation requires the state to provide web-based professional development to enhance teacher integration of digital instruction.

Georgia: Overall, 11 online providers are approved, but criteria for state approval of additional new providers has not been established. All students attending Georgia Virtual School, which operates under the auspices of the Georgia Department of Education, take state end-of-course exams. Publishers of state-adopted textbooks are now required to provide e-versions. The state sponsored online school is developing online K-12 educator professional development.

Kentucky: The state-operated virtual high school that opened in 2000 closed in 2012 due to lack of funding. However, three providers do offer online coursework, including Kentucky Educational Television. The state’s largest provider, Jefferson County’s e-school, uses competency-based curricula. The state provides a PK-20 learning management system to support blended and fully online coursework.

Michigan: The state requires at least 20 hours of online learning to graduate from high school. Districts may apply for a seat-time waiver to offer online learning. The Michigan Virtual University maintains a catalog of online courses, and in collaboration with other statewide organizations, developed an interactive online learner readiness rubric.

Minnesota: The state offers a searchable database of courses offered by approved providers. State approval is required for schools that deliver online courses to meet 50 percent or more of a student’s instruction, and approved providers continue to participate in a quality review process. Teacher education programs must prepare candidates to deliver digital and blended learning.

Wisconsin: The state Department of Public Instruction has established criteria for quality online courses offered through supplemental programs. A professional development requirement of 30 hours of training for online teachers was repealed in 2013. The state has supported the development of a resource portal for students to access online and blended courses.

What national reports and guidelines are available for administrators, tech coaches and teachers?

  • The annual Keeping Pace with K-12 Online & Blended Learning annual report provides comprehensive data on practices and policies in the U.S, including detailed state-by-state data.
  • Education Week’s Schools Open Doors to New E-Learning Rules (2012) provides another perspective on laws, funding and quality control.
  • The Michigan Virtual Learning Institute and iNACOL have developed a research clearinghouse on blended/online learning, including references that can provide guidance on blended learning, competency-based learning and online teacher professional development.
  • The National Association of State Boards of Education in Born in Another Time (2012) recommends that states examine policies that enable or prohibit access to online learning opportunities, cross-state sharing and partnerships; develop standards for online courses and teaching; and assure that teacher candidates experience online teaching during clinical experiences.

Arlene Borthwick is an associate dean and professor at the National College of Education, National Louis University in Chicago. She served as an ISTE Board member from 2010 through 2014 and received the ISTE Making IT Happen award in 2008. Her research relates to online instruction, personalized learning technologies and school-university collaboration to support preservice candidates’ impact on PK-12 student learning.

Randy Hansen is an associate professor and director of the Master’s of Instructional Technology Program at University of Maryland University College in Adelphi. His research interests include online teaching and learning, emerging technologies, teacher professional development, and creating active learning environments.

Gerri Spinella, co-director for the Legacy Project Educational Initiative and Illinois chair of the National Association for Multicultural Education, has received international recognition for publications and curriculum on technology and diversity. She is an instructor for doctoral candidates in administration at Walden, Concordia Portland Online and National Louis University.