Online Learning


Online Learning

Just a little over a decade ago, online learning for many educators fell into the realm of science fiction, or worse, snake oil. Visions of students accessing an array of courses on their computers, interacting with teachers over the internet, and participating in virtual “field trips” seemed more fantasy than reality.

Just a little over a decade ago, online learning for many educators fell into the realm of science fiction, or worse, snake oil. Visions of students accessing an array of courses on their computers, interacting with teachers over the internet, and participating in virtual “field trips” seemed more fantasy than reality.

But in 2012, with advances in the availability, quality and usability of electronic devices, nearly 2 million K-12 students are taking online courses, some 200,000 of them in full-time academic programs, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). This Topics section examines the rise of online education through research, reporting, and other resources.

After Florida, Michigan and other early adopter states ventured into the virtual schools arena in the late 1990s and early 2000s, other states joined in the movement. Online learning is now a widely available option for students across the country looking to make up credits toward graduation, take courses not available in their local schools, or get a jump on college through dual-enrollment programs. At least 40 states have some kind of online learning program, and 30 states allow students to attend school full time via the internet. Those programs provide districts with new options for meeting students’ needs.

Online learning is no longer the novelty it once was. Increasingly, advocates are making the case that digital learning can play a leading role in addressing a range of challenges facing K-12 education. For example, Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia who is now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said at a national leadership summit in February 2012 that online learning is an “imperative for meeting those challenges such as providing sufficient opportunities for students to gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the global economy; dealing with budget deficits that are forcing program cuts; and ensuring students’ access to high-quality teachers, curricula, and learning experiences.

Questions on Quality

A number of alternative school models, including cyber charters, are beginning to gain traction as a result of the interest in and availability of online coursework. While the total number of charter schools utilizing an online or blended model is still tiny, they are multiplying. Michigan lawmakers, for example, approved a measure in March 2012 to expand the number of cyber charters in the state from two to 15 in the near future. The 11 cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania through 2012 have been popular among families seeking alternatives to the traditional public schools, but their quality has been called into question because most of their students have been unable to reach state benchmarks on math and reading tests. Some Pennsylvania school districts have used that data to make the case for cyber students to come back to traditional public schools.

Indeed, more questions are surfacing about the academic quality of the online programs. The National School Boards Association has been particularly vocal on this issue, citing in a report in May 2012 a “troubling” lack of “good information about results and accountability.” Interest and demand for online learning options for K-12 students have surged in recent years due to their potential to provide cost-effective means of expanding instructional options and cater to students who’ve grown up using the internet for both informal and formal learning. Yet experts and advocacy groups agree that more research is needed to gauge the effectiveness of online and blended learning models.

The few solid studies that are available have not been in agreement in their findings. Some comparison studies, for example, have found a slight advantage in student outcomes for online courses, others for face-to-face instruction. A federal meta-analysis of the research on online learning, released in 2009, drew only tentative conclusions due to a lack of solid research on online learning practices. That analysis, though, found a slight advantage for blended learning over traditional classroom instruction.

Blended Learning Takes Hold

The success of School of One, a pilot project in New York City public schools that utilizes a blended model to personalize learning at each student’s own pace has been lauded as the kind of innovation needed for today’s schools. School of One, which started under the umbrella of the New York City Department of Education in a handful of middle schools several years ago, spun off as a nonprofit in January 2012. It also recently won a $5 million federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to expand the model beyond the district.

Blended learning has taken hold as districts begin to rethink how they deliver instruction amid fiscal instability and criticism of the traditional model of schooling, according to the Innosight Institute, a research and consulting firm working on innovation in education. Online and blended learning programs are growing fastest at the district level, says Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning 2011, an annual report on the subject by the Colorado-based consulting firm Evergreen Education Group. In Indianapolis, for example, officials approved 19 new charter schools using a mix of online and classroom instruction.

The availability of compelling online and multimedia resources has led to growing enthusiasm for another approach: the flipped classroom. The concept allows for students to receive instruction at home via computer that in a traditional classroom would be delivered in person by a teacher. In a flipped classroom, students review readings, videos and other materials at home in advance and then use class time to have in-depth discussions, conduct experiments, work on projects, or complete assignments traditionally given as homework. In the Los Altos school district, for example, middle grades students use instructional videos available through the free, online Khan Academy, to help teachers assess their skill level and better prepare them for class lessons.

With the emergence of so-called open source resources on the internet, some observers predict a revolution in the way children acquire knowledge and learn new skills. Akin to the Khan Academy model, TED and YouTube have launched video sites to capture model lessons and make them freely available. Free curriculum sites, such as Curriki and Open Education Resource Commons, provide a vast archive of content for teachers to use whole cloth or as a supplement to what they are already teaching. The open source movement has also inspired many teachers to share the lessons and strategies they’ve perfected over the course of their careers. The Open High School of Utah, for example, gives teachers time and support to create model curricula for the virtual academy. Some of the big commercial publishers, such as McGraw-Hill and Pearson, also create open source materials for use in schools.

While many nonprofit entities are involved in some aspects of implementation of online initiatives, many states and districts depend on for-profit providers for content and technical support. K12 Inc. and Connections Academy are among the leading providers in this market.

Key Coverage Lori Crouch

3 States Tried to Shutter Failing For-Profit Online Charter Schools. A Suspicious Pattern of Allegations, Accusations, and Legal Complaints Quickly Followed
The 74

On their face, the allegations describe public officials being bought — and for a pittance. Drinks in a hotel lobby. Airfare reimbursement for a meeting. A $4,000 “personal payment” appearing just before a mid-level functionary inks a government contract for the consultant offering the so-called perks.

Indeed, the legal complaints filed in South Carolina, Georgia, and Nevada have resulted in a string of juicy headlines. And later, though ostensibly unrelated, in the resignations of two of the state employees named.


72nd EWA National Seminar
Baltimore • May 6-8, 2019

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This year’s event in Baltimore, hosted by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Education, will explore an array of timely topics of interest to journalists from across the country, with a thematic focus on student success, safety, and well-being.


EWA Invites Journalists to Apply for Fellowships on K-12, Higher Ed Topics
Awards of up to $8,000 will support ambitious reporting and writing

*The deadline for this round of the EWA Reporting Fellowship was Aug. 31, 2018. The application cycle is now closed. 

The Education Writers Association is pleased to announce a call for proposals for its next class of EWA Reporting Fellows. The fellowships provide financial awards to journalists to undertake ambitious reporting and writing projects. This will be the sixth class of EWA Reporting Fellows.


71st EWA National Seminar
Los Angeles • May 16-18, 2018

EWA 71st National Seminar Los Angeles graphic

EWA’s National Seminar is the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat. This multiday conference provides participants with top-notch training delivered through dozens of interactive sessions on covering education from early childhood through graduate school. Featuring prominent speakers, engaging campus visits, and plentiful networking opportunities, this must-attend conference provides participants with deeper understanding of the latest developments in education, a lengthy list of story ideas, and a toolbox of sharpened journalistic skills.

EWA Radio Caroline Hendrie

“Rewarding Failure”: Education Week Investigates Cyber Charters
EWA Radio: Episode 107

Reporter Arianna Prothero discusses Education Week’s eight-month investigation of online charter schools,  including how some companies aggressively lobby states to craft regulations that allow them to flourish despite spotty records on student achievement. Why do some students opt for this kind of alternative publicly funded education? What do we know about attendance, academic achievement, and school quality in cyber charters? Who are the big players in the cyber charter industry, and how much is known about their policies, practices, and profits?

Prothero answers these and other questions and shares story ideas for local reporters covering online charter schools in their own communities.

Blog: The Educated Reporter Allison Kowalski

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

Back-to-School: You Need Stories, We’ve Got Ideas

The boys (and girls) are back in town. For class, that is.

See how forced that lede was? Back-to-school reporting can take on a similar tinge of predictability, with journalists wondering how an occasion as locked in as the changing of the seasons can be written about with the freshness of spring.

Recently some of the beat’s heavy hitters dished with EWA’s Emily Richmond about ways newsrooms can take advantage of the first week of school to tell important stories and cover overlooked issues.


69th EWA National Seminar

The Education Writers Association, the national professional organization for journalists who cover education, is thrilled to announce that its annual conference will take place from Sunday, May 1, through Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in the historic city of Boston.

Co-hosted by Boston University’s College of Communication and School of Education, EWA’s 69th National Seminar will examine a wide array of timely topics in education — from early childhood through career — while expanding and sharpening participants’ skills in reporting and storytelling.

Boston, Massachusetts

The New Frontier For Advanced Placement: Online Ap Lessons, For Free – The Washington Post

The explosion of free online education, known mainly for targeting adults, is reaching ever further into high schools.

On Wednesday, a new sequence of lessons for high school Advanced Placement courses in calculus, physics and macroeconomics went live on a free Web site founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The lessons, developed by Davidson College for the site called edX, represent a new step in the evolution of ties between the popular AP college-level program and the “massive open online courses” known as MOOCs.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Students, Teachers Don’t Study The Way Science Says They Should

Henry Roediger listens as Bror Saxberg answers a reporter's question at EWA's 68th National Seminar in Chicago. (Photo credit: Mikhail Zinshteyn/EWA)

Most students don’t study using methods backed by scientific research, panelists at the Education Writers Association’s deep dive on the science of learning told reporters in Chicago at the association’s 68th National Seminar.

“Why do people find learning so hard?” asked Henry Roediger, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who participated in the April event.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Are Video Games Good for Kids?

Riding the subway to work the other day, I glanced over at the commuter next to me, tapping away on his smartphone. But he was not texting. Clad in jacket and tie (and earbuds), he was engaged in virtual hand-to-hand combat.

In the digital game, he was Spider-Man, battling some muscle-bound monster or alien — lots of kicking and punching, and finally K.O. flashed on the screen.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

More Schools Turning to Online Fundraisers

A teacher in Muskegon Heights, northwest of Grand Rapids, Mich., is seeking $239 to buy her students headphones. (

A couple of recent stories highlight schools turning to online fundraising to provide students with everything from basic classroom supplies to long-distance field trips. 

Nicole Dobo, who covers blended learning for The Hechinger Report, looked at how more easily accessible (and transparent) online sites such as are giving teachers a way to make direct appeals for help:

Blog: The Educated Reporter Erik Robelen

Virtual Choices: Opportunities and Challenges for Online Schools

Flickr/Todd Ludwig

For students looking for greater flexibility in their learning environment, virtual schools can be a better option than a traditional bricks-and-mortar K-12 campus. But some online programs operating in more than two dozen states have come under scrutiny for reaping profits while yielding poor academic academic outcomes.

Blog: The Educated Reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn

How One Charter Group Took a Start-Up Approach to Teaching

Classroom with Chromebooks Flickr/kjarrett (CC BY 2.0)

At Summit Public School: Denali, young learners do it differently. Most of the students at this Bay Area-area school complete their coursework on school-issued Chromebooks, where they access a portal to online videos, assigned readings and interim assessments they take at their own pace. It’s a competency-based approach to proving they have mastered the subject at hand. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

SXSWedu: Education Ideas ‘Big and Bright’ in Austin

I’m in Austin for the next few days at the SXSWedu conference, which will bring together big thinkers, educators, and entrepreneurs to talk about latest philosophies, approaches, and technology reshaping the business of schooling. I’ve packed my boots, my trendy glasses, and plenty of extra notebooks that I fully expect to fill up with Big Ideas. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Will Online Khan Academy ‘Educate the World’?

EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University, took place earlier this month. We asked some of the journalists attending to contribute posts from the sessions. The majority of the content will soon be available at EdMedia Commons. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing a few of the posts, including the ones from our keynote sessions. Justin Pope, higher education reporter for the Associated Press, is today’s guest blogger.


A Conversation with Thomas Friedman, Part 4: Information Overload, College Costs and Education as a Civil Right

A Conversation with Thomas Friedman, Part 4: Information Overload, College Costs and Education as a Civil Right

From the Education Writers Association 2013 National Seminar, a discussion between Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tom Friedman (New York Times) and Stephanie Banchero (Wall Street Journal). Filmed at Stanford University.

During the Q & A portion of his talk, Friedman fields questions on the pitfalls of online education, being overwhelmed by information, and how technology might offset rising tuition costs.


A Conversation with Thomas Friedman, Part 3: Modern Career Opportunities, Fear of Technology and Reasons to Be Optimistic

A Conversation with Thomas Friedman, Part 3: Modern Career Opportunities, Fear of Technology and Reasons to Be Optimistic

From the Education Writers Association 2013 National Seminar, a discussion between Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tom Friedman (New York Times) and Stephanie Banchero (Wall Street Journal). Filmed at Stanford University.

In part 3, Friedman discusses how young people are faring in the job market and how U.S. schools compare with their international counterparts.


A Conversation with Thomas Friedman, Part 2: Missing the Point on MOOCs, Cost vs. Value in Higher Ed and the ‘401(k) World’

A Conversation with Thomas Friedman, Part 2: Missing the Point on MOOCs, Cost vs. Value in Higher Ed and the ‘401(k) World’

From the Education Writers Association 2013 National Seminar, a discussion between Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tom Friedman (New York Times) and Stephanie Banchero (Wall Street Journal). Filmed at Stanford University.

In part 2, Friedman talks about the boom in Massive Open Online Courses, the role of teachers in increasingly tech-focused classrooms, and the importance of motivation in a world of defined contributions.

Key Coverage

State Systems Go MOOC

Universities from New Mexico to New York will join Coursera in a sprawling expansion of the Silicon Valley startup’s efforts to take online education to the masses.


National Leadership Summit for Online Learning

The National Leadership Summit for Online Learning, organized by iNACOL, was held in February 2012. This video archive lets you view most of the discussions held there, including “It’s All About Teaching and Learning” and “The Disruptive Innovation.”


The National Education Policy Center

The National Education Policy Center has issued a series of papers on online learning, questioning, in particular, the effectiveness of online charter schools. The center is headquartered at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education.


The Innosight Institute

The Innosight Institute is a think tank co-founded by Harvard Business School guru Clayton Christensen. Their education research aims to apply Christensen’s  “theories of disruptive innovation to develop and promote solutions to the problems of education” with a particular emphasis on blended learning and online education.


The National School Boards Association

The National School Boards Association is a nonprofit organization that works with federal agencies and other national associations to influence education policy as it pertains to school boards.

The Association has been particularly vocal on issues of the quality of the academic programs some cyber charters offer, citing in a report from May 2012 a “troubling” lack of “good information about results and accountability.”

Key Coverage

Disrupting Class

This blog from writer Michael Horn, a co-founder of the nonprofit think tank Innosight Institute, follows the various ways that technology is shaping education reform.

Key Coverage

What You Need to Know About MOOC’s

Colleges and professors have rushed to try a new form of online teaching known as MOOC’s—short for “massive open online courses.” The courses raise questions about the future of teaching, the value of a degree, and the effect technology will have on how colleges operate.

Key Coverage

California Bill Seeks Campus Credit for Online Study

Legislation will be introduced in the California Senate that could reshape higher education by requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for oversubscribed classes on campus.

If it passes, as seems likely, it would be the first time that state legislators have instructed public universities to grant credit for courses that were not their own — including those taught by a private vendor, not by a college or university.

Key Coverage

For-Profit Woes Means Less Work for Adjuncts

One of the big draws of online education is that it can be easily untethered from the traditional semester schedule, with online universities often offering new classes 52 weeks a year. But while they are convenient for students, and profitable for institutions, rolling starts for classes can mean flimsy job security for the adjunct professors who teach them.

Key Coverage

Davos Forum Considers Learning’s Next Wave

Education has long played a part in the annual deliberations at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But this time, many participants may have detected what Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, described as “a lot of attention.”

Key Coverage

Quality Control a Challenge for Virtual Ed.

As online learning has entered the mainstream—with roughly a third of the nation’s high school students enrolled in at least one online course, according to a report released in June 2011—more states have created policies, procedures, and even organizations for evaluating the quality of such courses and other online content available to students. But instituting those quality-control measures is not without challenges.

Key Coverage

Districts Require E-Courses for Graduation

In the 105,000-student Memphis city school system in Tennessee, officials were also concerned about making sure every student had the access needed when the district decided two years ago to require students to take an online course before graduation. The district got creative, said Cleon L. Franklin, the director of instructional technology. It provided computer-lab time before and after school and coordinated with community organizations, such as libraries, to make sure students could use computers there.

Key Coverage

Reflecting on a Year of Blended Learning

This column from a coordinator of New York’s iLearn NYC program — a blended learning initiative throughout the public schools — notes “that blended learning that is not managed ethically can be damaging, but that strong teachers can use blended learning to help all students in new ways.”

Key Coverage

Virtual Education Seen Lacking Accountability

Full-time online schools have gained 50,000 more students in the past year alone, bringing the total number of students taking part in such virtual learning environments up to 250,000,” according to this article, which looks at a report from the National School Boards Association.


Education Reform for the Digital Era

This report from an education reform advocacy group notes that “For digital learning to fulfill its enormous potential, a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself is required, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance.

Key Coverage

Are Virtual Schools a Sham?

This column by Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, argues that “A few common-sense ground rules must be in place if online learning and virtual schools are to work well.”

Key Coverage

E-Schools Put Specific Measures for Success in Place

From the article: “Virtual schools, particularly those that provide full-time services for students, are coming under increasing scrutiny over student achievement and accountability. Several reports in recent months have questioned everything from the transient nature of virtual student populations to the integrity of student work and the lack of comparisons between online and face-to-face learning.

Key Coverage

Education Week’s Technology Counts 2012: E-learning Turns Toward District-Level Approaches and a Focus on Accountability

The annual series from Education Week examines developments in the online education front. The 2012 report determines that “as e-learning moves further into the K-12 mainstream, it is also attracting closer scrutiny from educators, policymakers, researchers, and the news media. Questions about its effectiveness are being asked more often by a growing cadre of critics, and even advocates concede that the e-learning movement needs to take a harder look at putting better accountability measures in place.”


The Digital Learning Imperative: How Technology and Teaching Meet Today’s Education Challenges

This report from an advocacy group discusses how school districts can use online education to confront the challenges posed by budget restrictions, teacher quality and demands for improved student learning. It asserts that “digital learning” can be most effective when “teaching, technology, and use of time” are well balanced.

Key Coverage

Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools

“The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost,” the article notes. But an analysis of one company’s operations “raises serious questions about whether [it] — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.”

Key Coverage

Mature Market for Online Education

The market for online higher education aimed at adults may be reaching maturity, according to a new report from Eduventures. And without a better-defined product, the report’s author said online learning faces a risk of petering out and being little more than a back-up alternative to on-campus education for students.


Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning

This report “provides an overview of the latest policies, practices, and trends affecting online learning programs across all 50 states.” This series of reports from an education consulting group commissioned by various organizations have been published annually since 2004, making them a helpful resource for tracing the growth of online learning in recent years.


Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies

This report was one of the first major analyses of the effectiveness of online learning and remains one of the most influential. It “found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes… was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face.