Updated September 25, 2018
ROUGHLY 20 YEARS HAS PASSED SINCE THE WORLD WIDE WEB BEGAN TO BE USED WIDELY, AND THE OLDEST K–12 ONLINE SCHOOLS AND PROGRAMS ARE BETWEEN 15 AND 20 YEARS OLD. These include Laurel Springs online private school, which dates to early 1990s, the Virtual High School, which launched with a federal grant in the mid-1990s, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which grew out of a Florida Department of Education grant to two districts in 1996, and several small district online schools, such as the Monte Vista online academy in Colorado, which launched in 1997.
These pioneering online schools and programs paved the way for numerous others. In the late 1990s and early years of the new decade two new types of online programs grew rapidly. State virtual schools proliferated across the southeastern U.S., spurred by the early successes of FLVS, and in states in other regions including Michigan and Idaho. Online schools grew quickly as the for-profit companies like K12 Inc. and Connections Academy launched, spurring growth of online schools in many states. Although Connections and K12 were focused primarily on starting and running online schools, other companies including APEX Learning, Aventa (acquired by Fuel Education), E2020 (now Edgenuity), and others began to provide online courses to schools.
Since then, the center of activity and growth has moved from state-level organizations, such as state virtual schools and online charter schools drawing students across entire states, to individual districts and schools. It has also moved from being mostly online to frequently combining online and onsite components. Most students accessing online courses or content are doing so from a physical school or some other formal learning center, not from home. The number of courses using online content in which the teacher of record is based at the physical school dwarfs the number of courses in which the teacher is online.
But to trace the roots of this in-school online learning activity primarily to the online charter schools and programs like state virtual schools would be a mistake. In fact, the roots of much of the current digital learning activity are in computer-assisted instruction that pre-dates the World Wide Web by many years. While the schools and suppliers who were primarily online adjusted their products and services to account for onsite, school-based use and support, the suppliers with roots in computer-assisted instruction were moving their computer-assisted content into a web-based environment.
The roots of computer-assisted instruction
The history of computer-assisted instruction (CAI) is long and involved, and includes many organizations. Any attempt to detail its history will inevitably leave out some important developments. Most accounts, however, would point to the PLATO project at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that started in 1960 as a major milestone in the evolution of using computers to deliver instruction. The PLATO system was used to deliver instruction in topics ranging from French to Organic Chemistry and advanced military training. In the early 70s super computer company Control Data Corporation took over the project. By then the PLATO system developers had added a powerful course authoring language called PLATO Tutor, email (Personal Notes), message boards, chat rooms (Taklomatic), instant messaging (Term-Talk), and remote screen sharing. The PLATO user terminals even had a touch screen. First major uses of the PLATO system as well as some other early CAI systems were in higher education, corporate and military training and simulation environments. The Control Data PLATO project evolved over time and eventually gave birth to two of the most widelyadopted product lines for personal computers and Internet, PLATO Learning (now Edmentum) and NovaNet (later acquired by Pearson Education). These systems and others like them have been used in tens of thousands of schools across the country, primarily to provide intervention and remediation for struggling students. Because these students were often recovering credit or retaking material for other reasons, they worked through the computer material with some help from a teacher, but with limited interaction with the teacher and little or no interaction with other students. Credit recovery was a major driver of early CAI programs in schools, and credit recovery remains a major element of the digital learning landscape.
The roots of online learning
Unlike CAI, which began with a focus on in-classroom and learning lab use, much of the online learning we see today in K–12 schools had its origins as a form of distance education. The early forms of distance learning were geared toward homebound students (and vocational educationat a postsecondary level), and used pre-World Wide Web delivery methods including print materials, CD-ROMS, and video conferencing to deliver instruction and facilitate communication. As distance learning evolved with the advance of the Internet, online courses were developed for Advanced Placement students, or to provide college preparatory courses that were not available in rural or inner-city schools. The growth of online education in postsecondary and professional development contributed to the legitimacy and growth of online learning in K–12. Early forms of online learning initially centered on translating a complete classroom course syllabus to a distance education environment, including similar content and assignments, and then grew to allow for teacher-student interactions, also similar to a traditional classroom. Examples of this type of early online learning program were often created in rural states such as Alaska, North Dakota and Nebraska. Online schools have innovated in a variety of ways, but in most cases they remain based on teacher-student interaction, and in some cases student-student interaction.
Because online courses often serve as an alternative to regular classroom instruction, and in some cases draw students out of traditional schools, education policy and oversight provisions have evolved to address online learning, while very few regulations address CAI and other uses of education technology. To this day, extensive policies specific to online learning govern online schools, but relatively few policies specific to digital learning govern CAI.
The current digital learning landscape
The key benefits of CAI and online learning were largely complementary, and in recent years online learning and CAI have converged. From a supplier standpoint, Pearson Education exemplifies this evolution: it acquired Connections Education and now offers both Connections courses (roots in online learning) and other online content with roots in CAI. School districts are providing both types of options, and they are often both managed at a district level by one district office. In the Clark County school district in Nevada, for example, the online learning program serving students at home and in schools is closely tied to efforts to support district schools in their move to digital content and devices. This dynamic is increasingly common in traditional school districts.
Much like today’s musical artists who often sample other music to re-mix, re-envision, and re-create new songs and sounds, practitioners today are taking different elements of digital learning, with varied backgrounds and sources, for use in their own schools, programs, and classrooms. The online learning and CAI roots of different types of digital learning have been obscured as each has appropriated elements of the other. Three additional elements further complicate the landscape. First, confusion exists between entities that are schools—those that enroll students and provide a full range of courses and associated services—and those that are suppliers of online courses, tools, and teaching, to schools and also to families who are buying courses and instructional materials. This confusion has been exacerbated by the fact that suppliers may be companies, nonprofit organizations, or public agencies, and that some suppliers have the word “school” or “academy” in their name. Second, some entities are suppliers and also own and operate schools. Finally, in some school districts the line between school and supplier becomes blurred, because the district runs a program that serves its students directly, but that program, often with a name that sounds like a school, is actually an internal school district that delivers online courses to students across district schools.
Understanding the layers and their relationships in the universe of suppliers and users, illustrated below, is critical for comprehending the digital learning landscape. For online and digital learning, suppliers are entities that provide online and digital learning products and services to schools, and sometimes directly to students, but usually coordinated and monitored by a school. A supplier is not responsible for a student’s academic activity and performance and is not authorized to do so. They do not own the transcript of a student, administer state assessments, assign grade levels, or offer diplomas. Some suppliers, such as state virtual schools, offer courses using teachers employed by the state virtual school, but it is the student’s home school that maintains responsibility. The supplier, offering the online course and perhaps the teacher, is essentially a contracted outsource provider of instructional services to a school. Schools, on the other hand, are entities, authorized via state policy, that have the primary responsibility for a student’s education. Schools include traditional public, charter, and private schools; independent study and similar non-traditional schools that enroll students; and online, onsite, and blended schools. Only authorized schools can grant credit towards grade level advancement and confer diplomas.