I had the opportunity earlier this week to attend a presentation on state-level online learning policy and practice by John Watson of Evergreen Consulting Associates, author of the 2006 Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning report.

The report was sponsored by a whole diverse raft of organizations with interest and expertise in online learning. Much of interest here for education policy leaders.

In his presentation, John highlighted variations in online learning policy in different regions of the US, discussed the influence of state-led programs, and pointed out model programs like Florida Virtual School, Illinois Virtual High School, and University of California Prep Online. Surprises and mileposts from the state-by-state smorgasbord:

  • The shocker of the day: As a region, the Southeast has far and away the most robustly developed K-12 online policies and programs in the nation. John speculates that this is attributable to three influences: high needs in those states requires innovative programs, the coordinating influence of the Southern Regional Education Board, and funding from the BellSouth Foundation.
  • In contrast, nothing much is happening in the Northeast. Really. Almost nothing at all. Quotable quote: "In Rhode Island, distance education is reaching the kid in the back of the classroom."
  • Central region: A wide range of programs. Michigan and Illinois are notable for virtual high schools, Minnesota for the comprehensiveness of its reporting. Michigan has staked out territory in a vanguard of sorts by being the first state to require an "online experience" as part of graduation standards.
  • He characterized the western states as a libertarian bunch, with an eclectic mix of programming and policy. Notable: Washington’s Digital Learning Commons.
  • Conclusions to be drawn from a national flyover: There are many approaches, significant regional differences, and nobody has a silver bullet.

John wrapped up the presentation with these four touchstones for educational leaders:

  • Online learning expands options for students.
  • Online learning is growing rapidly.
  • Online learning is efffective—"equal to or better than" traditional instruction.
  • Online learning improves teaching.

Many implications to ponder, both from his presentation and in the Keeping Pace report. In the Q & A session after his session, some intriguing notions came up about the shape of school districts to come, the role of professional development and how teaching online changes teachers’ practice and approach, and school choice  and open enrollment. I hope to dive back into these topics soon to put a layer of shellac on some of these unfinished thoughts.

A side note: John graciously allowed me to record his presentation, and a follow-up interview, for Hamline’s Conversations in Education podcast—thanks, John. Coming soon to a podcatcher near you.