As more students opt to enroll full-time or part-time in virtual learning programs, a growing number of states are considering proposals mandating that students take at least one online course before graduating from high school.
An important step for states considering such a requirement is to define what they mean by virtual learning and taking an online course, because definitions can vary. The motivation behind the requirement is key, too.
“Access at home and in school is really important,” said Allison Powell, vice president of state and district services at the International Association for K-12 Online learning  (iNACOL).
Initiating a virtual learning program to cut teacher jobs and save money is not a good approach, although Powell noted that so far, no one has started an online learning program for these reasons. “The teacher is still the most important person in the child’s education, even in the online world. [Teachers] just need to be trained a little bit differently in order to be successful in the environment—but we still need them,” she said.
In 2010, more than 4 million K-12 students participated in formal virtual learning programs, including 217,000 students in cyber charter schools, according to iNACOL statistics.
Michigan, Alabama, and Florida are currently the only states to require a virtual learning credit for high school graduation, although many other states and districts—including Idaho and Indiana—have implemented or are considering such requirements.
Michigan was the first state to implement such a requirement in 2006, followed by Alabama in 2008.
“Michigan knew students would need 21st-century skills,” Powell said. “Students not only receive content in an online course, but they also get skills [such has] communicating and using those actual technology tools.”
The state aimed to pave the way for student success after high school, whether students entered the workforce or college.
Powell noted that some districts are running their own charter schools, and many special-education students are taking online classes as well.
Florida requires that an online learning option be made available to any student who wants it, and the state’s new Digital Learning Now  law will require that high school students take an online course before earning a diploma. The law also expands the state’s pioneering Florida Virtual School.
Idaho won initial approval for its new plan to require two online learning credits for high school graduation. That plan went up for public comment during October, and final approval is expected sometime in 2012.
Idaho’s plan would take effect with students set to graduate from high school in 2016—next fall’s high school freshmen. The state Board of Education crafted the online course requirements as part of new education changes that were signed into law earlier this year with backing from public schools chief Tom Luna and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. Luna had wanted students to take up to eight online course credits, but that provision was ditched during the 2011 Idaho Legislature amid opposition from parents, teachers, and some lawmakers.
The legislation Otter signed into law instead directed the state Board of Education to draft standards governing the online course requirements.
The move was a critical step in “making sure every Idaho student graduates from high school with the skills they need to be successful in postsecondary education and the workforce,” Luna said.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett proposed in September that all students be required to take one online course before they graduate from high school.
“We will give schools flexibility to explore alternative delivery methods, like online learning—so that even students in places with fewer resources have access to the very best instruction,” Bennett said during his State of Education speech in September.
“To make sure students are prepared for the technology they will face in college and the workforce, we will ask the general assembly to require every student to take online coursework before graduating from high school,” he said.
Students in Alabama are required to complete one “online/technology-enhanced course or experience” before graduating from high school. Students may enroll in an online course, or they may take courses in a blended format in which they receive classroom instruction and also participate in a virtual environment.
Essential to the state’s requirement are specific definitions, said Melinda Maddox, director of technology initiatives at the Alabama Department of Education .
The state defines an online experience as one in “a structured learning environment that utilizes technology consistently.” Some aspects of that environment include:
- The use of intranet- and internet-based tools for resources as delivery methods for instruction, research, assessment, and communication;
- Collaboration among students in content-related projects that integrate a variety of media;
- Participants engage in collaborative online learning projects, discussions, and assessments that are goal-oriented, focused, project-based, and inquiry-oriented; and
- An online course or learning management system is used to support global learning opportunities and facilitate the management of online experiences.
One purpose of the state’s online learning requirement is to “show the importance of students being prepared for college and career and lifelong learning, and much of that lifelong learning is going to be online,” Maddox said.
Many college courses or portions of college courses are online, and college-bound students are more prepared for such a transition if they already have experience in online learning, she said.
Alabama’s project spans a four-year timeline—at the end of the four years, freshmen who have to meet the criteria will be seniors—during which Maddox said that schools will develop and implement their plans for the requirement.
“We highly recommend that schools and teachers implement it according to the needs of the students,” Maddox said, adding that many schools start by offering one course at a time online or in a blended environment. Ensuring that teachers are comfortable and properly trained to use a learning management system is crucial, she added.
Teachers are required to take extra professional development, and the state has been careful to clearly define that the online courses and experiences are teacher-led.
“The biggest thing is understanding the vocabulary you’re using,” Maddox said. “When you say ‘online learning,’ some people think it’s just going on the internet and doing research.”
Because technology access is almost always an issue, Maddox said the state education department gave grants to all high schools, which provided 25 computers per school. State officials are working with larger schools to figure out how to stretch those 25 computers across a large number of students.
“That’s where you work with them individually, and think of different ways they can implement it, and then connect them with a school that has similar demographics and has implemented it,” Maddox said. For instance, some schools are working with local cable companies or offering take-home/check-out programs for students.
iNACOL reports indicate that K-12 virtual learning is growing faster than any other academic segment, at about 16.8 percent per year, and overall virtual learning enrollments are growing by 46 percent per year.
“Give them the skills they’ll need later in life—learning in virtual environments, taking online courses, and if it’s done right, the courses are very personalized, and each student gets that online learning experience,” Powell said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.