Updated September 25, 2018
An online learning consortium is an association of two or more schools, districts, or even regional service agencies pooling resources to expand or improve delivery of online learning options for students. It is a concept that is seeing rapid adoption across the country as districts ban together to create cooperative online and digital leaning programs to gain economies of scale and talent, in hopes of providing a superior program to member schools that they could not accomplish individually.
They come in all shapes and sizes, with differing program models, but they share the common characteristic of delivering some combination of online courses, instruction, technology tools, and/or other services for the benefit of their members.
Consortia operate statewide and regionally—some even nationally. The Virtual High School (VHS), one of the oldest and largest consortia, includes members in many states and foreign countries. SUPERNet, a consortium of 27 largely rural school districts in East Texas, has a regional focus. Other consortia have members statewide, and some consist strictly of neighboring districts. eLo (Expanding Learning Opportunities) is a partnership among three suburban Chicago school districts with over 2,300 course enrollments in FY 2016-17. Consortia can be large, with annual course enrollments over 20,000, or as small as several hundred course enrollments, and vary in terms of the scope of what they supply their members.
The Virtual High School’s unique structure and approach to working with member schools is often referred to as a collaborative. The Virtual High School (VHS) is a nonprofit organization based in Maynard, Massachusetts, with students from more than 600 schools in 40 states and 33 countries participating. The program is particularly strong in the Northeast; of its 18,504 course enrollments and approximately 12,000 students in FY 2016–17, over 6,800 enrollments were from Massachusetts. Nearly 200 middle and high schools in the state participate.
VHS has multiple options for school participation. One option is the VHS Teaching Membership. Schools designate a local teacher to teach a VHS course and receive a discount on student enrollment fees. VHS provides the teacher with graduate-level professional development on how to teach effectively online. The Virtual High School has provided professional development to more than 1200 teachers from local schools in the last ten years. Schools may also elect to participate with a Student Only Membership. Schools enroll students in VHS courses using a student “seat” model, purchasing as many or as few enrollments as they need. Discounts are available for educational service agencies, state and district programs, and volume purchases. Schools wishing to customize an online or blended education program for their students using VHS courses can do so through a VHS Custom Offering. Individual students not participating through a school or consortium can enroll directly with VHS, at a cost of $450 per semester course. VHS also offers a full-time program in which students may elect to take their entire high school curriculum online through VHS, while still remaining students within their local school district.
Consortia membership models and governance vary as widely as size and geographic reach. Some consortia limit their offerings to their members, but others extend their services to schools and districts outside the consortium. The Indiana Virtual Academy (IVA) is a consortium that was formed to provide online learning for students in the school districts in Ripley County. It discounts services for partner schools and residents of Ripley County ($190 per course), but enrolls students across the state at a cost of $295 per course. The consortium is governed by a Board of Directors that consists of a regional career center, the director of a local community foundation, and the superintendents of the four school corporations in Ripley County.
SUPERNet in Texas reaches beyond its regional membership to include some of its courses in the Texas Virtual School Network catalog that allow students from across the state to enroll in SUPERNet courses. SUPERNet develops all of its course content in-house using member district teachers. Members pay an annual fee to have access to all course offerings. SUPERNet has an advisory board of superintendents from participating rural districts that oversee its activities and resources. A district selected by the advisory board acts as fiscal agent for the consortium’s activities, greatly expanding the online learning services and infrastructure far beyond what any of these small districts might have done independently. Two SUPERNet member districts focus extensively on coordinating E-rate activities for the consortium. Since E-rate typically means managing three different funding years, each with critical deadlines, considerable attention is needed in order to leverage this source of technology funding, and many rural districts face retention issues in these administrative roles.
Other examples of consortia membership models and services include some of the following:
The Panhandle Area Educational Consortium (PAEC) consists of 14 rural districts in Florida, and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The consortium started to support districts in areas of mutual interest, such as shared media centers, testing programs, special education, joint purchasing of services and data records, and other support services. Online and blended learning has become an increasingly important service as PAEC works to help rural districts meet legislative requirements. Since 2013, online course completions have grown from about 100 to approximately 3,000 completions annually. PAEC is one of a number of FLVS franchise partners across the state. FLVS provides PAEC with online curriculum, a learning management system, student information system, student support, and training and mentoring for district teachers and administrators. PAEC hires its own online teachers and pays FLVS for the franchise services per course completion at $50 per half-credit course for most courses.
GenNET Online Learning is a consortium developed by the Genesee Intermediate SchoolDistrict in Michigan that offers districts access to online courses through its Online Learning Portal of courses from approved online course providers. GenNET is authorized by the Michigan Department of Education to extend its seat-time waiver to partner districts across the state. The seat-time waiver allows a district to have the state’s pupil accounting rules waived to allow eligible students to take coursework online. Any member district can enroll students in grades 6–12 in up to two courses via GenNET without a seat-time waiver. Students in grades K–5 enrolled in a Genesee County school or any contiguous county can enroll in GenNET courses as well.
Hampton Roads Educational Telecommunications Association (Virginia) is a unique district membership and online course model that began as a partnership between the Norfolk and Hampton Public Schools and WHRO public television. Over the past decade, it has evolved into WHRO Education that provides online courses correlated to Virginia’s standards to member districts. The courses can be licensed by Virginia schools outside the consortium membership and imported into several different learning management systems. Once licensed, schools are free to modify the content as necessary.
There are several active online and blended learning consortia in Ohio. Learn 21 is a consortium of school districts that work together to review online learning supplier products and broker licenses for the members of the organization. Learn 21 offers professional development, digital course design, data integration, and other online learning services to members. The Stark-Portage Area Computer Consortium (SPARCC) serves school districts in Stark, Portage, and Carroll counties. SPARCC led in the creation of a cooperative of districts that pooled resources for a group purchase of online courses from Florida Virtual School, resulting in an estimated $500,000 in savings for participants. The independent Ohio Blended Learning Network (OBLN), led by Mentor Public Schools District and facilitated by the nonprofit organization Smarter Schools, ranges from small charter schools to large public school districts.
Private schools’ interest in online supplemental courses has driven the formation and growth of several consortia including the Hybrid Learning Consortium, the Malone Schools Online Network, the Global Online Academy, and the Online School for Girls. In addition to these consortia, which operate nationwide or across large geographic areas, several regional consortia function as well. These include the Bay Area BlendEd Consortium in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Eight Schools Association in New England, VizNet in the southeastern U.S., and MSAISnet in the mid-South.