History of K-12 Online Learning

Tom Clark, TA Consulting

This module focuses on the evolution of K-12 online learning, which represents a confluence of several historical trends: the development and growth of distance education, especially at the elementary and secondary levels; using a succession of distance education technologies, and finally the emergence of modern e-learning technologies and educational management systems necessary to support fully K-12 online learning. The primary purpose of K–12 distance education, expanding access to curriculum and providing educational choices, has changed little over time.

A timeline showing some of the key milestones in the development of K-12 online learning and its antecedents is shown below. The history of K-12 online learning did not begin with the first virtual school; rather, it began with the concepts and systems that made K-12 online learning possible.

Key Dates in the History of K-12 Online Learning

1840: Isaac Pitman first offers study via postal service; later develops correspondence colleges
1910: First documented use of educational film in K-12 instruction
1929: University of Nebraska begins supervised high school correspondence study
1930: Wisconsin School of the Air begins educational radio programming
1933: University of Iowa begins educational television programming
1952: FCC reserves TV channels for educational use
1961: MPATI broadcasts airborne instruction to Midwestern schools
1965: Computer based K-12 learning experiments at Stanford, and a year later at Illinois
1969: Public Broadcasting Service launches service
1970s: Wisconsin ETN and other telephone networks used in K-12 instruction
1980: Development of USENET
1982: Development of SMTP email & Internet Protocol Suite
1980s: Audio and computer conferencing CMC technologies used in K-12 instruction
1985: TI-IN Network begins K-12 instruction via satellite videconferencing
1987: Norwegian distance learning expert Morten Paulsen predicts development of the ‘virtual school’
1989: Statewide Maine and Oregon networks use terrestrial videoconferencing in K-12 instruction
1989: Timothy Berners-Lee demonstrates key functionalities of the World Wide Web
1990s: Many states and regions develop broadband networks for K-12 instruction and other uses
1996: U. of Nebraska’s CLASS online high school project begins, followed by state virtual schools
2000s: Most educational satellite videconferencing networks cease operation
2011: A million or more estimated enrollments in K-12 online learning

Some Definitions

Distance education is defined here as “formal instruction in which a majority of teaching occurs while teacher and learner are separate” (Verduin & Clark, 1991). Virtual schooling is a form of distance education. Clark (2001) defines a virtual school as "an educational organization that offers K-12 courses through Internet- or Web-based methods” (p. 1). Watson and Kalmon (2005) define online learning as “education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily over the Internet”.

Allen and Seaman (2011) define an online course as well as blended and face-to-face courses based upon the percentage of the course content delivered online -- 80 percent or more for online course, 30 to 80 percent for blended courses, and 29 percent or less for face-to-face courses.

Development and Growth of Distance Education

Correspondence study, the earliest type of distance education, relied on the exchange of instructional lessons and student work on paper. Distance education dates to at least as early as 1728, when Caleb Phillips advertised shorthand lessons in the Boston Gazette (Holmberg, 2005). The development of postal services in the 19th century facilitated more widespread study by mail. The first documented case of correspondence study was the teaching of shorthand via the mails by Isaac Pitman in Great Britain in the 1840s. Pitman went on to found several correspondence study schools (Moore & Kearsley, 2005).

Distance education occurred primarily at the adult and postsecondary levels until the 1920s. A search for “History of distance education” online reveals many related essays and articles. For example, Osborne (n.d.) provides a nice visual timeline for the evolution of distance education.

View original image at http://www.zdnet.com/blog/igeneration/the-history-of-distance-learning-infographic/15791

Independent study high school programs emerged in the 1920s as the first manifestation of K-12 distance education, and a forerunner of virtual schools. These programs offered supervised correspondence study for K-12 students. A Michigan Superintendent presented his supervised correspondence study program as a model in 1923 (Mitchell, 1923). In 1929, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln began the first large-scale program. Depression-era federal funding helped the university scale it up (Broady, 1932). Subsequently over two dozen universities and a few states developed their own independent study high schools. Nine decades later, the University of Nebraska secured federal funding to launch one of the first virtual high schools, building on its independent study high school program.

Broady, Platt and Bell (1931) note that in supervised correspondence study, “the local high school secures the lessons, provides periods in the regular school day for study, supervises the pupils’ work, and returns the lessons to the correspondence study center,” which prepares and grades the lessons” (p. 9). This is not unlike lab-based computer or online learning as it is still practiced today in K-12 schools.

Correspondence study was until recently the mainstay of K-12 independent study. Enrollments reached an all-time high of 175,000 in 2004–2005 (D. Gearhart, personal communication, March 31, 2006). However, about 45% of these enrollments were in online courses, double the percentage four years earlier. Print-based study enrollments continued to decline, leading some programs to phase out that study option.

Educational radiowas probably the first electronic media used for large-scale distance education. Some educational radio programs involved remote instruction and grading by personnel at the state education agency, but most provided supplemental content in elective topics for elementary school teachers in rural areas. The first statewide education network, the Ohio School of the Air, operated from 1921 through 1937 (Saettler, 2004). The Wisconsin School of the Air (1930-1975) was the longest running. At its peak in 1966, its instructional broadcasts reached 330,000 students, or about one third of those enrolled in K-8 public schools statewide. Course teams developed curricula and radio teachers followed instructional models that reflected Dewey’s experiential and activity-based educational philosophy (Bianchi, 2002). Murtaugh (n.d.) developed an audio Web lesson on the Wisconsin School for the Air. This photo from the lesson shows children listening to a broadcast.

Wi School of the Air.JPG
View original image at http://www.meganmurtaugh.com/weblesson.html

This use of course teams and focus on learner interaction presaged common practices in K-12 online learning. In the 1970s, the Wisconsin Educational Telephone Network built upon the School of the Air experiences, connecting a network of over 200 classrooms statewide. Operated by University of Wisconsin’s Extension Service rather than the Department of Public Instruction, this network mainly provided continuing education programs and saw limited use for K-12 distance education (Reid & Champness, 1986)..

Educational film was used for supplemental in-school programming as early as 1910 (Saettler, 2004), but has rarely been used for distance education. Supplemental educational television programming began in 1933 at the University of Iowa with broadcasts to Boy Scouts for merit badge requirements (Kurtz, 1959). It rose to new heights with the introduction of airplane-based transmission in 1961, allowing broadcasts to schools in multiple states (Jajkowski, 2004). The founding in 1972 of the Public Broadcasting Service, a nationwide television network, immediately rendered this airborne instructional experiment obsolete. PBS grew into a large-scale provider of supplemental educational programming, in-school and out of school. Through its Adult Learning Service, it also became a major provider of college telecourses, reaching 450,000 enrollments at its peak in 2001 (Behrens, 2005). On the other hand, the use of television for K-12 distance education has been limited. Few telecourses are designed for K-12 audiences, although some high school students enroll. A number of comparison studies were conducted from the 1930s through the mid-1970s, most of which showed no significant difference in telecourse and conventional student achievement (Chu & Schramm, 1975).

Educational satellite programming began in1973, with broadcasts to rural K-12 educators in Alaska. This one-way video, two-way audio system was the first major form of educational videoconferencing. TI-IN, the first national satellite education network, was founded in 1985, with a primary focus on providing high school credit course via distance education (Pease & Tinsley, 1986). In 1999, about 40% of K-12 unit schools nationwide reported use of educational satellite in 1999 (Howley & Harmon, 2000).

A new wave of terrestrial educational networks also emerged, culminating in the development in the 1990s of statewide fiber optic networks used to deliver video, data, and voice services in support of two-way full-motion video-based distance education, networking, and telephony. Other regional educational videoconferencing networks relied primarily on two-way compressed video, and were often used for dual enrollment or course sharing. Most of these terrestrial educational networks are still in existence today, supporting online and blended learning and other uses. However, educational satellite networks could not adapt to the transition from video-based to online learning, and being single-purpose in nature, most have ceased operations (Oklahoma State University, 2001).

Perennial Issues in Distance Education Relevant to Online and Blended Learning

Clark (in press) describes a number of perennial issues in the history of K-12 distance education that remain relevant to K-12 online and blended learning today. These include
  • Support from policymakers and funding agencies for distance education initiatives
  • The role of distance education in providing equitable access to educational opportunities, such as acccess to a full curriculum, and to Advanced Placement courses and remedial education
  • Concern over course completion and success rates and other student outcomes in distance education, when compared to conventional education outcomes
  • The lack of common metrics across distance education programs, making it difficult to compare programs and measure success
  • Public attitudes towards distance education, including perceptions of the equivalency of distance and conventional education, and concerns about the impact of full-time study on K-12 students,
  • The role of the local school in supporting distance education students by providing effective supervision and support services
  • The role played by distance education in local schools in terms of serving students and meeting school goals.

And last, but not least:
  • Lasting concerns about the academic effectiveness of distance education, regardless of prior studies and meta-analyzes showing no significant differences in student outcomes
  • Concerns among educational researchers about the relative paucity of research on distance education, especially on the effectiveness of specific methods and interventions, rather than on the effectiveness of distance education in general

Emergence of the Virtual School

The development of the virtual school and K-12 online learning required new technologies and systems. Morten Paulsen coined the term in a1987 essay, noting that “It is possible to create a virtual school around a computer-based information system” (p. 71). Closed computer networks were used for computer-based learning experiments in elementary schools in 1965 at Stanford University (Suppes, Jerman and Groen,1966) and at University of Illinois (Van Meer, 2003). Many K-12 schools used computer-assisted learning in the 1980s and 1990s. Meta-analytic studies showed a positive effect for computer-assisted versus conventional learning in K-12 (Kulik, Bangert, & Williams, 1983; Kulik, Kulik,& Bangert-Drowns,1985).

The development of the Internet Protocol Suite (Cerf, Dalai & Sunshine,1974), USENET (Truscott, 1980), and SMTP email (Postel, 1982) made possible the standardized exchange of text information and communications over the Internet between computers. Computer conferencing also emerged, allowing computer users to interact in real time. Berge and Collins (1998) compiled descriptions of many uses of computer-mediated communications over the Internet in K-12 education. Active, engaging content and computer-based learning environments were being developed in this pre-Web era. In 1989, Timothy Berners-Lee demonstrated the network of networks, the World Wide Web (Berners-Lee & Fischetti, 2000). The basic technologies were in place for developing a virtual school.

Early virtual school experiments combined basic Internet tools like email and FTP with computer-based content.

Usenet Invite.JPG

By the mid-1990s, a few Internet-based and Web-based schools had emerged. The development of University of Nebraska’s high-profile CLASS online high school in1996, followed by Concord Consortium’s Virtual High School and the Florida Virtual High School (now Florida Virtual School) in 1997, launched a race among states and universities to build virtual high schools. Most virtual high schools focused on supplementing the curricula of conventional schools, rather than on being diploma-granting schools.

Virtual high schools gave way to virtual schools, as online learning expanded to other educational levels. Clark (2001) compiled information about 32 U.S. schools or consortia that acted as providers of online K–12 courses in 2000–2001. Of the virtual schools responding to Clark’s 2001 survey, all reported offering high school courses, but a surprising 51% offered middle school courses as well. Today, many virtual schools offer online courses at all K-12 levels, on a full-time or supplemental basis (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2010).

As interest in K-12 online learning grew, video-based distance education offerings began to decrease. The U.S. Department of Education (2008) estimated 507,000 enrollments in technology-based distance-education courses through U.S. public school districts in 2004–2005, an increase of more than 50% since 2002-2003. In 2002-2003, video-based courses were reported more frequently, while two years later, online courses were reported more frequently.

Watson, Winograd and Kalmon (2004) conducted the first in a series of national studies for the Keeping Pace with Online Learning series, finding that K-12 online learning programs were growing rapidly and policies to guide practice were lagging behind in this rapidly evolving area. As the series continued, Watson and his colleagues profiled program practices in all 50 states, while providing analysis on policy issues and trends, such as growth in state virtual schools and full-time online learning program enrollments, the emergence of blended learning options, and the rapid growth of single-district online learning programs (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin & Rapp, 2011).

Growth in Virtual Schools

Until the early 2000s, online K-12 courses were primarily used to supplement the secondary high school curriculum. Over the past decade, the number of virtual schools and student enrollments in K-12 online learning programs has increased dramatically.

By 2010-2011, there were well over one million enrollments in fully online K-12 courses. While a defensible estimate of total enrollments is not available, state-led virtual schools reported over 536,000 online course enrollments, while full-time multi-district schools enrolled an estimated 250,000 enrollments. These two program types had over 25% enrollment growth in a year. Enrollments for other program types could not be estimated (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2011).

Post-secondary online learning also continues to grow, fueling calls for K-12 students to experience online learning before college. By fall 2010, over 6.1 million college students were taking at least one course online. When compared with a year earlier, online college course enrollments grew by 10% (Allen & Seaman, 2011). Several states have mandated that public high school students complete at least one online course or learning experience before graduating from college.

Looking at the rapid growth in the U. S. (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2011) and in Canada (Barbour, 2011a), K-12 online learning when compared with growth in other countries, Clark (2009) asks, why is virtual schooling largely a North American phenomenon? Clark cites some factors at work in the U. S. that may have fueled growth. He notes that Europe school children have similar technology access, and that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is part of the minimum mandatory curriculum there (Eurydice, 2004). Recent studies suggest that other nations are catching up, in terms of blended learning worldwide (Barbour, et al, 2011b), and online learning in Europe (Bacsich, 2012).

Growth by Virtual School Type

A good discussion of ways of to classify virtual schools and K-12 online learning programs can be found in the Classifying K-12 Online Learning module.

Clark (2001) classified virtual schools by organizational control (post-secondary, state-level, charter, district-led, private, consortia) and also noted the emergence of mostly for-profit organizations that helped others “build” virtual schools. The focus in this early study was on identifying organizations acting as a “virtual school” by providing K-12 online courses, rather than on K-12 online learning programs, a much broader category that includes all programs operated by K-12 education agencies that make K-12 online courses available to their enrolled students.

The distinction between providers and consumers of online courses has since blurred, as many local K-12 online learning programs participate in curricular development and/or instruction for the online courses they offer. In addition, many local schools that operate K-12 online learning programs are blending online learning components into their bricks-and-mortar school instructional day. While providers are still relevant today, the proper focus is on how each K-12 education agency is using online learning to benefit students. However, the growth over time of virtual schools of different types is useful to consider.


The history of K-12 online and blended learning extends beyond the emergence of the first virtual schools in the 1990s. It includes all prior forms of distance education and the educational technologies that helped lay the groundwork for K-12 online and blended learning as we know it today. The perennial issues raised in prior forms of distance education remain relevant today, as educators and researchers seek to address perennial stakeholder concerns, and to build effective and sustainable online and blended learning programs.


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Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2011). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning. A review of state-level policy and practice. Durango, CO: Evergreen Education Group.


Clark, T. (2001). Virtual schools: status and trends. Phoenix, AZ: WestEd. Retrieved from http://www.wested.org/online_pubs/virtualschools.pdf


"Keeping Pace" Reports
  • the annual survey of K-12 online learning in the United States

"State of the Nation" Reports
  • the annual survey of K-12 online learning in Canada

VISCED Partnership
  • a Transnational Appraisal of Virtual School and College Provision.

Blogging Activity

The module author states that "The primary purpose of K–12 distance education, expanding access to curriculum and providing educational choices, has changed little over time." However, some say that K-12 online learning programs must achieve better student outcomes, not equivalent ones, to justify funding.

On your blog, post an entry where you:

1. Make a case either that K-12 online learning must achieve (a) equivalent student outcomes or (b) improved student outcomes, to justify its use in expanding access to curricula or providing educational choices.