New 2009-10 school year survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms the rapid growth of K-12 technology-based distance education enrollments, from an estimated 317,070 in 2002-03 to 506,950 in 2004-05 to 1,816,400 in 2009-10*.
While growth is no surprise, here are six more interesting insights:
1. Wide Variation Across the Country: Overall, 55% of public school districts reported students enrolled in distance education courses. Large districts (74%), towns (67%), rural districts (59%), and those in the southeast (78%) were much more likely to report enrollments. Districts in cities (37%) and those in the northeast (39%) lagged behind. Poverty concentration was not a factor.
2. High Schools Dominate: The vast majority of enrollments (74%) continue to be at the high school level.
3. Tracking Improves, But Still Incomplete: In 2004-05, urban schools didn’t even know the course completion status for 46% of their students. Districts report improved tracking, but too many still don’t have critical information, such as how many students withdraw prior to course completion, to judge effectiveness.
4. Wide Variety of Providers: 75% of districts reported that all courses were developed by a different entity. These include post-secondary institutions (50% of districts), independent vendors (47%), state virtual schools (33%), other districts (21%), and education service agencies (16%). Again, there are big variances across regions, with 77% of districts in the southeast using state virtual schools compared with 16% in the northeast.
5. Both Ends of the Spectrum: Among districts with students enrolled in distance education courses, credit recovery (62% of districts), dual enrollment (47%), and advanced placement (29%) are all options.
6. Access and Credit Recovery are Main Drivers for Districts: Districts with distance education enrollments say that providing courses not otherwise available (64% of all districts, 73% of rural) and credit recovery (57% of all districts, 81% of large) are very important reasons for offering these opportunities. And, despite frequent concerns that finances are driving these options, 82% of districts say that neither addressing school space limitations nor generating more revenues are important reasons for offering distance education.
* The NCES term “distance education” also includes one-way prerecorded video, such as television and cable broadcast, though data show only four percent of districts use these to a large extent. Also note that the same student can take multiple courses, so the number of enrollments is not the same as the number of individual students taking courses.