New DLC course choice report released

by John Watson

Reviews state policies, practices, and enrollment data

The Digital Learning Collaborative has released our latest report: Course Choice: A Review of Policy and Practice.

Course choice (also commonly referred to as “course access”) describes a set of state-level policies and programs that allow students to choose an online course from one or more providers, and have their public education funds flow to the online course provider to provide payment. The key element of the policy, as the term suggests, is that students and parents have the right to choose a course, with relatively few restrictions on their options imposed by the state or the student’s district of enrollment.

Course choice is one policy strategy to fill a critical need for students who do not have access to a wide range of courses—or access to a specific course they are seeking—within their school. Another common policy strategy to meet shortcomings in available courses is supporting a state virtual school or other programs to provide online courses at below-market rates. In other states, no significant state-level policy exists to address a lack of course availability.

School districts are, of course, able to provide their own online courses or contract with a provider to offer online courses to their students. A wide range of providers exists, including many companies, non-profit organizations such as The Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.), districts such as the Launch program of Springfield (Missouri) Public Schools, other districts, and intermediate units such as the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in Pennsylvania. Students who are enrolled in these and similar districts often have a wide variety of online course options. However, students in districts that don’t offer online courses often do not have the option to select an online course, unless state policy compels online course opportunities. In addition, some states fund schools based on seat time or other methods that discourage the use of online courses because either such courses don’t generate funding, or they must be taken under certain restrictive conditions, such as while the student is on a school campus.

The key elements of course choice are:

  • The student chooses one or more online courses from one or more providers.

  • The student retains control over the choice with limited restrictions. In much the same way that open enrollment laws allow students to choose schools other than those in their districts of residence, course choice allows students to choose a single academically appropriate course from outside their district of enrollment.

  • A significant portion of the student’s public education funding (pro-rated to the per-course amount of funding) flows to the provider of the online course.

Key characteristics of specific course choice policies and programs that vary by state include:

  • Whether students choose courses through a statewide source such as a common online course catalog, or alternatively find the course and enroll in it via the course provider or another source.

  • The reasons that a district can deny a student’s choice.

  • The recourse that a student has if the district denies the online course.

  • Whether students can choose from a single provider or from multiple providers.

  • The ways in which course providers are vetted by the state prior to offering courses, if at all.

  • How the cost of the course is determined, and in particular whether the state sets a cost per course, or the cost is set by the provider.

  • The tracking and reporting that the state does of providers, online course enrollments, and outcomes.

As of school year 2019–20, 15 states have or are developing some mechanism by which students can choose online courses, but the states vary in significant ways.

The wide variety of experiences in states that have some sort of course choice policy in place suggests that any findings across states must be generalized and will have exceptions. Still, a few observations appear to hold true.

  • Course choice policies supported by a state program attract higher levels of enrollments.

  • Often a single entity, or a small number of organizations, has an outsize effect on supplemental course enrollments in a state.

  • Course enrollment data availability varies widely between states but is mostly lacking.

Findings from the Course Choice: A Review of Policy and Practice report will be presented and discussed at the Digital Learning Annual Conference (DLAC) on February 24-26 in Austin, Texas. Additional conference sessions and conversations surrounding course choice are planned as part of this unique digital learning conference.


B-61-90, Blog PostJohn Watson