Classifying K-12 Online Learning

Michael Barbour, Wayne State University



Defining K-12 Online Learning


Clark (2000) defined K-12 online learning as “a state approved and/or regionally accredited school that offers secondary credit courses through distance learning methods that include Internet-based delivery” (p. i). Within the literature this definition has become the accepted standard. However, the task of describing K-12 online learning, at least from an international perspective is difficult. While there have been specific delineations within the practice of K-12 online learning in the United States, those distinctions are not consistent outside of the United States. For example, Barbour and Stewart (2008) indicated that terms such as virtual school, cyber school and Internet high school were used interchangeably in the Canadian context. Barbour, Brown, Hasler Waters, Hoey, Hunt, Kennedy, Ounsworth, Powell, and Trimm (2011) lamented “that one of the major issues is that there is no clear international understanding or standard set of definitions to clarify exactly what online learning comprises” (p. 14). In their report (along with Barbour, Hasler Waters, and Hunt [2011]) the responses from some countries were focused upon K-12 online learning, while other responses included all aspects of technology integration in the K-12 classroom.

Historically in the United States there have been clear and specific descriptors for K-12 online learning. For example, traditionally virtual schools have been programs where students took one or more courses in a supplemental manner, while cyber schools were programs that had students engaged in full-time online instruction (although the recent iNACOL Online Learning Definitions Project used the terms synonymously). Similarly, much of the literature distinguishes between blended learning and hybrid learning (again, the iNACOL Online Learning Definitions Project also used these terms synonymously). When these two terms were first used (primarily in higher education), hybrid learning referred to programs that sometimes used face-to-face instruction and sometimes used online instruction, but not at the same time. For example, many online courses in higher education will have their first class meet in a face-to-face seeing to try to build community, get to know each other, etc.; and then proceed with the rest of the semester online. Odyssey Charter School in Las Vegas would be an example of a hybrid program – where students come to the school one half day a week to take one face-to-face course and then meet with teachers and their learning coach, while the remainder of their studies are done online. Blended learning is using both face-to-face and online instruction at the same time. For example, if you think about the VOISE program in Chicago where students come to a physical school and there are teachers in the room, but the content instruction is being done online. Another example would be how most schools in Michigan are meeting the K-12 online learning requirement, where they take one of the mandatory courses in their curriculum and either have the entire course delivered by the classroom teacher using a CMS with content, activities and assignments online or their create a 20 hour/four week unit of content in an existing course and have the students go to the computer lab for that unit and do that unit with the teacher through the CMS.

However, these distinctions - and the clarity of the definitions - continue to get muddled. For example, Allen and Seaman (2007) described the continuum of educational delivery as:

Table 1
Allen and Seaman (2007) Diversity of Course Delivery Paradigm (p. 5)
Proportion of Content Delivered Online
Type of Course
Typical Description
0%
Traditional
Course with no online technology used — content is delivered in writing or orally.
1 to 29%
Web Facilitated
Course that uses web-based technology to facilitate what is essentially a face-to-face course. Uses a course management system (CMS) or web pages to post the syllabus and assignments, for example.
30 to 79%
Blended/Hybrid
Course that blends online and face-to-face delivery. Substantial proportion of the content is delivered online, typically uses online discussions, and typically has some face-to-face meetings.
80+%
Online
A course where most or all of the content is delivered online. Typically have no face-to-face meetings.
More recently, Stalker and Horn (2012) outlined four models of blended learning.

  • 1. Rotation model – a program in which within a given course or subject (e.g., math), students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion between learning modalities, at least one of which is online learning. Other modalities might include activities such as small-group or full-class instruction, group projects, individual tutoring, and pencil-and-paper assignments.
  • (a) Station Rotation – a Rotation-model implementation in which within a given course or subject (e.g., math), students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion among classroom-based learning modalities. The rotation includes at least one station for online learning. Other stations might include activities such as small-group or full-class instruction, group projects, individual tutoring, and pencil-and-paper assignments. Some implementations involve the entire class alternating among activities together, whereas others divide the class into small group or one-by-one rotations. The Station-Rotation model differs from the Individual-Rotation model because students rotate through all of the stations, not only those on their custom schedules.
  • (b) Lab Rotation – a Rotation-model implementation in which within a given course or subject (e.g., math), students rotate on a fixed schedule or at the teacher’s discretion among locations on the brick-and-mortar campus. At least one of these spaces is a learning lab for predominantly online learning, while the additional classroom(s) house other learning modalities. The Lab-Rotation model differs from the Station-Rotation model because students rotate among locations on the campus instead of staying in one classroom for the blended course or subject.
  • (c) Flipped Classroom – a Rotation-model implementation in which within a given course or subject (e.g., math), students rotate on a fixed schedule between face-to-face teacher-guided practice (or projects) on campus during the standard school day and online delivery of content and instruction of the same subject from a remote location (often home) after school. The primary delivery of content and instruction is online, which differentiates a Flipped Classroom from students who are merely doing homework practice online at night. The Flipped-Classroom model accords with the idea that blended learning includes some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace because the model allows students to choose the location where they receive content and instruction online and to control the pace at which they move through the online elements.
  • (d) Individual Rotation – a Rotation-model implementation in which within a given course or subject (e.g., math), students rotate on an individually customized, fixed schedule among learning modalities, at least one of which is online learning. An algorithm or teacher(s) sets individual student schedules. The Individual- Rotation model differs from the other Rotation models because students do not necessarily rotate to each available station or modality.
  • 2. Flex model – a program in which content and instruction are delivered primarily by the Internet, students move on an individually customized, fluid schedule among learning modalities, and the teacher-of-record is on-site. The teacher-of-record or other adults provide face-to-face support on a flexible and adaptive as-needed basis through activities such as small-group instruction, group projects, and individual tutoring. Some implementations have substantial face-to-face support, while others have minimal support. For example, some flex models may have face-to-face certified teachers who supplement the online learning on a daily basis, whereas others may provide little face-to- face enrichment. Still others may have different staffing combinations. These variations are useful modifiers to describe a particular Flex model.
  • 3. Self-Blend model – describes a scenario in which students choose to take one or more courses entirely online to supplement their traditional courses and the teacher-of-record is the online teacher. Students may take the online courses either on the brick-and-mortar campus or off-site. This differs from full-time online learning and the Enriched-Virtual model (see the next definition) because it is not a whole-school experience. Students self-blend some individual online courses and take other courses at a brick-and-mortar campus with face-to-face teachers.
  • 4. Enriched-Virtual model – a whole-school experience in which within each course (e.g., math), students divide their time between attending a brick-and-mortar campus and learning remotely using online delivery of content and instruction. Many Enriched-Virtual programs began as full-time online schools and then developed blended programs to provide students with brick-and-mortar school experiences. The Enriched-Virtual model differs from the Flipped Classroom because in Enriched-Virtual programs, students seldom attend the brick-and-mortar campus every weekday. It differs from the Self-Blend model because it is a whole-school experience, not a course-by-course model. (pp. 8-15)

It should be noted that some scholars have suggested that these ever expanding definitions and classifications of K-12 online learning have been done for political reasons to show higher than actual growth within the field (in many instances by those who have made outrageous predictions about the scope of K-12 online learning in the coming years). Regardless, as K-12 online learning continues to evolve there continue to be a range of ways to describe the nature of a K-12 online and blended learning programs.



Describing K-12 Online Learning


"When examining the virtual schooling landscape and literature, it is important to note that there is a great deal of variation in the type of virtual schools in operation. Each different type of program has its own unique challenges when it comes to the design, delivery, and support of learning opportunities for their students. Clark (2000) identified seven different types of virtual schools. Table 1 describes Clark‘s categorization of virtual schools and examples of institutions associated with each.

Table 2
Clark’s Seven Categories for Virtual Schools
Category
Description
State-sanctioned; state-based
Virtual schools operated on a state-wide level.
Utah example: Electronic High School
College and university-based
Virtual schools operated by universities supplying introductory college-level and preparatory courses to online high school students.
Utah example: Brigham Young University Independent Study High School Program
Consortium and regionally-based
Virtual schools operated by a group of states, schools, or school districts to pool and maximize resources.
Example: VHS
Local education agency-based
Virtual schools operated by a single school or school district.
Utah examples: Alpine online, Davis online, Unitah, and Washington online
Virtual charter school
Virtual schools operated under charter school legislation. These schools are also referred to as cyber schools.
Utah examples: Open High School and Utah Connections Academy
Private virtual schools
Virtual schools operated in the same manner as a brick-and mortar private school but delivered online.
Utah example: The Park City Independent High School
For-profit providers of curricula, content, tools, and infrastructure
Commercial companies that at as vendors for course delivery and content.
Examples: K12 Inc. and APEX Learning
Watson, Winograd, and Kalmon (2004) reclassified the types of virtual schools to include variables related to supplemental versus full-time and geographic scope of virtual school. Table 2 describes these five categories.

Table 3
Watson, Winograd, and Kalmon’s Five Categories of Virtual Schools
Category
School Description
Statewide supplemental program
Students take individual online courses and are enrolled in a brick-and-mortar residential school within the state. The program is authorized, operated, and overseen by a state agency.
Utah example: Electronic High School
District-level supplemental program
Students take individual online courses and are enrolled in a brick-and-mortar, physical school within the state. The program is operated at the district level.
Utah example: Alpine online, Davis online, Unitah, and Washington online
Single-district cyber school
Students enroll full time in courses operated by a single district. This is an alternative to attending a physical school.
Examples: St. Claire‘s Virtual Learning Academy and Dearborn Heights Virtual Learning Academy
Multi-district cyber school
Students enroll full time in the program which is operated by multiple districts.
Example: Westwood Cyber School
Cyber charter school
Students enroll full time in the program which is chartered within a single district but can draw students from across the state.
Utah example: Open High School
Beyond the operational control, geographical reach, and comprehensiveness of the program, additional dimensions of variation among virtual schools lie in whether they are delivered asynchronously or synchronously, the level interaction (i.e., teacher-student, student-student), and grade level the program supports (Watson et al. , 2010). While the virtual schooling landscape continues to change and these classifications have been refined in recent years, the original labels/taxonomy remain relevant for describing virtual schools particularly given the fact that these terms remain predominate in the literature today."

The "Describing K-12 Online Learning" section taken from Abigail Hawkin's dissertation entitled "//We're Definitely on Our Own//": Interaction and Disconnection in a Virtual High School (pp. 2-5).

References:

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2007). Making the grade: Online education in the United States, 2006. Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/sites/default/files/Making_the_Grade_Midwest.pdf

Barbour, M. K., Brown, R., Hasler Waters, L., Hoey, R., Hunt, J., Kennedy, K., Ounsworth, C., Powell, A., & Trimm, T. (2011). Online and blended learning: A survey of policy and practice from K-12 schools around the world. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from http://www.inacol.org/research/docs/iNACOL_IntnlReport2011.pdf

Barbour, M. K., Hasler Waters. L., & Hunt, J. (2011). Online and blended learning: Case studies from K-12 schools around the world. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Barbour, M. K., & Stewart, R. (2008). A snapshot state of the nation study: K-12 online learning in Canada. Vienna, VA: North American Council for Online Learning. Retrieved from http://inacol.org/resources/docs/NACOL_CanadaStudy-lr.pdf

Clark, T. (2000). Virtual high schools: State of the states - A study of virtual high school planning and preparation in the United States. Center for the Application of Information Technologies, Western Illinois University. Retrieved from http://www.imsa.edu/programs/ivhs/pdfs/stateofstates.pdf

Stalker, H., & Horn, M. B. (2012). Classifying K–12 blended learning. Mountain View, CA: Innosight Institute, Inc. http://www.innosightinstitute.org/innosight/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Classifying-K-12-blended-learning2.pdf

Watson, J. F., Winograd, K., & Kalmon, S. (2004). Keeping pace with K–12 online learning: A snapshot of state-level policy and practice. Naperville, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved from http://www.kpk12.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/KeepingPace_2004.pdf

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2010). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: An annual review of state-level policy and practice . Evergreen, CO: Evergreen Education Group. Retrieved from http://www.kpk12.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/KeepingPaceK12_2010.pdf

Readings:

Barbour, M. K. (2011). The promise and the reality: Exploring virtual schooling in rural jurisdictions. Education in Rural Australia, 21(1), 1-20. Retrieved from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_7253/is_1_21/ai_n57777315/
  • Read this article as an introduction to K-12 online learning and this four-week MOOC.

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2011). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: An annual review of state-level policy and practice . Evergreen, CO: Evergreen Education Group. Retrieved from http://kpk12.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/EEG_KeepingPace2011-lr.pdf
  • Read pages 8-11 that describe and define K-12 online learning.

Resources:

iNACOL Online Learning Definitions Project
  • The report from the iNACOL Online Learning Definitions Project that provides definitions for most common K-12 online learning terms.

iNACOL Online Learning Definitions Project Release
  • A blog entry commenting on the iNACOL Online Learning Definitions Project, specifically the definitions of virtual school, cyber school, blended learning and hybrid learning.

Watson et al. (2011) - Defining Dimensions Online Programs Figure
  • A figure from Keeping Pace report that outlines the dimensions of K-12 online learning.

Blogging Activity


On your blog, post an entry where you:
  1. Select five K-12 online and/or blended learning programs and describe them using one of more of the various classifications and descriptors above.
    OR
  2. Make a case for one of the current classification structures or propose a classification of your own that includes aspects of more than one of the definitions/classifications projects described above.