digital learning


Digital learning often works well for students and schools. When carefully planned, implemented, and supported by appropriate district and state practices and policies, it provides a valuable, flexible educational option. Digital learning expands the set of tools that educators can use in their efforts to advance equity in their schools while meeting goals for personalization and college and career readiness. It allows students to take dual-credit, honors, and Advanced Placement courses that they might otherwise not have available, and also allows at-risk students to get back on track in terms of credit accumulation, and to work towards graduation.


ROUGHLY 20 YEARS HAS PASSED SINCE THE WORLDWIDE WEB BEGAN TO BE USED WIDELY, and indeed the oldest K–12 online schools and programs are between 15 and 20 years old. In the late 1990s and early years of the new 2000s two types of online programs grew rapidly. State virtual schools proliferated across the southeastern and midwestern U.S., spurred by the early successes of Florida Virtual School, and in other states including Michigan, Idaho and Georgia. At the same time, online schools grew quickly as the companies like K12 Inc. and Connections Academy launched, spurring growth of online schools in many other states. While Connections and K12 were focused primarily on starting and running their own online schools, other companies like 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 expanded from state-level organizations, such as state virtual schools and online charter schools drawing students across entire states, to individual districts and schools that supply their own online courses. Programs have evolved from being mostly online to frequently combining online and onsite components. As such, a variety of online learning usage and delivery models have evolved. The three examples below describe the basic models of the large majority of digital learning programs.

  • Students taking some online courses supplemental to regular classroom instruction. Millions of students are taking supplemental online courses while attending a physical school. Many of these—the exact number is unknown—are recovering credits. Others are taking advanced, honors, or dual enrollment online courses that are not available as traditional courses. Still others are taking courses that are offered at their physical school, but are taking them online in an extra period, or over the summer, in order to gain scheduling flexibility. The extent to which the student’s enrolling school supports the online courses varies. In some schools the student is supported with a room, computer, and mentor. At the other end of the spectrum, some students take the online courses from home with no support from the physical school. Student success in online courses correlates with local school support.
  • Students taking all their courses online. Hundreds of thousands of students are attending full-time online schools that provide their entire education. Many of these students (perhaps 20%) were formerly homeschooled, but by enrolling in a public online school these students have become public school students. Other students are attending these schools because they have medical or behavioral issues, are engaged in a time-consuming pursuit such as arts or sports, or have not been academically successful in a physical school and are seeking a different mode of instruction. Most full-time online schools are charter schools that enroll students from across entire states, but a growing number are being run by districts or regional service agencies that enroll students from within a defined boundary.
  • Hybrid or blended schools combining face-to-race and online instruction. An unknown number of students are attending hybrid schools that combine a significant amount of online instruction with a significant amount of face-to-face instruction with a teacher or mentor. The same companies supporting full-time online schools run some of these hybrid schools. Other hybrid schools have their roots in alternative education programs that preceded the spread of online courses. These schools often serve students who are at risk of dropping out, or have dropped out of a traditional school and returned to public education via the alternative program.

In addition to these basic models that include a substantial element of online learning, a wide variety of other online and digital learning models have been implemented. For example, many teachers are using digital tools and resources—most of which are online—within regular classroom settings. Such tools include the use of content websites like the National Archives; Google G Suite for Education; countless other software applications for math, reading, and other subjects; classroom management software and learning management systems; and computers, clickers, interactive whiteboards, and other technology products in physical classrooms. The most successful of these educational applications have greatly enhanced instructional models and practices, while providing greater access and equity.

While the various delivery models and program types have, and continue to evolve and change, one constant has been the wide variety of suppliers of online content, tools, professional learning and other related services. For online and digital learning, we define suppliers as 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. As such, suppliers do not own the transcript of a student, administer state assessments, assign grade levels, or offer diplomas. Some suppliers, such as most state virtual schools and some vendors, offer courses that include the online teacher, who is usually employed by the supplier, but it is the student’s home school that maintains ultimate responsibility for the student. The supplier, offering the online course and perhaps the teacher, is essentially a contracted outsource provider of instructional services to a school. Only authorized schools can grant credit towards grade level advancement and confer diplomas.