Guidelines for Selecting Quality K-12 Online Courses


According to Ruben Lopez, Florida ’s former chief technology officer, e-learning will become the cornerstone of how K-12 curriculum will be delivered in the future (Miller 2003). By 2006, it is estimated that a majority of high school students will have taken an online course before graduating (Fulton 2002). Whether these predictions become reality remains to be seen, but there is evidence to support the growing presence of K-12 online learning. The technology infrastructure appears in place with 99% of U.S. public schools having Internet access in the fall of 2002 (Kleiner and Lewis 2003). The number of high school students taking online courses is also on the rise. For example, The Center for Education Reform ( in Washington , D.C. , estimated that 21,000 students were logging into their virtual classrooms from home in 2002, while state education officials said that about 30,000 students were attending 11 virtual charter high schools during 2003 in Ohio alone (Anglen 2003). Then in September 2003, a new first-of-its-kind group, the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL, online at, was launched to focus solely on advancing K-12 virtual education by providing the research support for what has and has not worked so far in K-12 distance learning (Lott 2003).

The list of virtual schools at the Distance Learning Resource Network (which is in limbo now since its funding ended) offering courses for K-12 learners and at least some Internet- or Web-based credit courses is also growing. Courses are hosted by state-sanctioned, state-level virtual schools; university-based virtual schools; virtual school consortia; virtual schools operated by districts and schools; virtual charter schools operated by state-chartered entities; virtual schools operated by private school entities; and for-profit providers of courses, curricula, development tools and infrastructures (Clark 2001).

For the most part, current programs are targeted for secondary students, as younger students might not have the study skills, reading and writing abilities, and self-discipline to do well (Russo 2001). The National Education Association (Fulton 2002) has cautioned about the use of the online environment to deliver instruction to students prior to middle school due to the current understanding of characteristics and needs of learners in earlier grades. Nevertheless, at least one initiative, William Bennett’s (, is promoting online learning in elementary school.


According to the Virtual Schools Forum Report (Center for Digital Education and U.S. Education Department 2002), there are currently no nationally adopted quality standards for online courses in virtual schools. This article contributes to that development and presents guidelines for selecting quality K-12 online courses in terms of curriculum, instructional design, teacher quality, student roles, assessment, management and support systems, and the technological infrastructure, as identified by the National Education Association (Fulton 2002). Lessons from the postsecondary experience inform this process. The guidelines are also intended to inform K-12 technology coordinators, curriculum directors, administrators, teachers, students and parents about online learning, as well as to assist online courseware developers.


D'es the curriculum meet and align with state/district academic standards? Are students able to deeply explore content for mastery? Are course expectations apparent? Is the course accredited by a recognized agency?

Curriculum and instruction can be more meaningful to students if they draw upon students’ pre-existing understanding, interests, culture and real-world experiences (National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine 2004). However, course content and assessments should also align with state academic standards (SREB 2000). Courses in reading, math and science are particularly subject to this provision. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation requires states to measure students’ progress in math and reading annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in grades 10-12 by 2005-2006. Students’ progress also has to be measured in science at least once in grades 3-5 and 6-8, as well as in grades 9-12 beginning in 2007-2008. Ultimately, schools will be held accountable for their students’ results.

A complete syllabus should be available for review (SREB 2000). The syllabus might contain the course description; learning objectives and outcomes; assignments with schedules and rubrics to assess quality; course-related resources and reference materials; policies for attendance, grading, participation, late assignments, tests, academic honesty, use of copyrighted material, Internet safety, and online behavior (Muirhead 2001).

Technical specifications for required hardware and software also should be stated, along with minimum technology skills that students should have. Students should be aware of the approximate total time per week that they should devote to online interactions, studying and assignments (Fulton 2002). They might benefit from statements of prerequisite content-knowledge expectations with suggested resources to help them fill in knowledge gaps, as well as examples of exemplary student work. Expectations for participation in asynchronous online discussions will be made clear if the syllabus also contains an exemplary response to a course-related discussion question and expectations for length, frequency and due days for student input and response to others (Deubel 2003b). A list of frequently asked questions about assignments and computer problems (e.g., what to do when technology fails), teacher contact information, and teacher biographical information with professional highlights also helps to establish the tone of the online environment (Muirhead 2001).

To deeply explore content for mastery, and to enrich the curriculum, resources might include grade-level appropriate research sites for students, student search engines, online libraries, access to museum holdings, exposure to primary documents, use of real data, communication with experts in the field, and online bookstores (NASBE 2001). Students for whom English is a second language might benefit from resources in their native language. Resources provided should comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, such as described by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Students should be taught research skills and provided with guidelines to assess the validity of Internet resources they might find (Phipps and Merisotis 2000). Optional assignments for extra credit also might motivate students to explore additional resources.

Tests and course activities should promote abstract thinking and critical reasoning (National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine 2004; SREB 2000). Assignments that include student reflections on course work (e.g., readings, projects, labs, online discussions and collaboration with peers), peer review and revision help students acquire those skills (Deubel 2003b; Fulton 2002). This recommendation is also in line with quality assurance benchmarks for distance education at the postsecondary level, which call for students to engage in analysis, synthesis and evaluation activities as part of course requirements (Phipps and Merisotis 2000). Developmentally appropriate course objectives designed using Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain help ensure this quality standard. Students remember more when they have learned to handle a topic at the higher levels of the taxonomy because more elaboration (Huitt 2004) and in-depth engagement with the content is required. To provide students with relevance for learning the content, activities should also connect to other knowledge domains.

Supportive personal relationships are critical for promoting and maintaining student engagement and motivation to learn (National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine 2004). Therefore, courses should feature a high degree of student-teacher and student-student interaction and feedback, including teacher communication and feedback to parents (Deubel 2003b; SREB 2000). Collaborative assignments such as discussion groups, role-plays, seminars, sharing assignment solutions, collaborative compositions, debates, simulations, case studies, brainstorming, forums, and group projects help build a community of learners (Pitt and Clark 1997). A page of class photos with short student-submitted bios and optional chat discussion threads might help students to connect with peers, assuming that the technology infrastructure supports a Web environment to protect student privacy (Deubel 2003b).

Courses should be field-tested and revised as necessary to ensure content accuracy, realistic completion times for assignments, and that all navigation and functional aspects of the instruction delivery system of choice are working properly (Deubel 2003b). Local and state education departments also should have endorsed the course.

Instructional Design

Is a learning model evident? Have research on learning theory and Universal Design for Learning been used to inform the online course development?

Selecting a learning model appropriate for the nature of course content is a first step in instructional design. Courses can either be self-paced or designed around a set schedule and calendar. They can be synchronous or asynchronous, or a combination of the two. Berman and Pape (in Russo 2001) believe that scheduled, asynchronous courses best meet the demands of high school settings, have higher completion rates than self-paced courses, and offer more opportunities for participation and increased thoughtfulness of student responses than synchronous courses. Schools must also understand the nature of their students, just like the Cincinnati Public Schools in Ohio . They redesigned their initial Virtual High School program to give it the stability and structure of traditional classrooms, while offering computer-driven lessons and self-paced schedules. Principal Steve Hawley said his school learned that most students need rigid deadlines, human interaction and positive reinforcement to succeed. The result seems best for their at-risk and high-achieving students who do not fit in regular schools because of families, jobs, social issues or boredom (Anglen 2003).

Cognitive-based learning models for an asynchronous learning environment include apprenticeship, incidental, inductive, deductive and discovery. The apprenticeship model is used when presenting concepts procedurally. The incidental model is based on presenting events to introduce concepts and provoke questions. An inductive approach introduces concepts using a set of specific examples that pertain to a broader topic area, whereas a deductive approach encourages learners to identify trends through presentation of broad data. The discovery method is inquiry-based (Sonwalkar 2001).

“Knowledge of both cognitive and learning theories is essential to quality instructional design and delivery” (SREB 2001). Designers might use strategies from Keller’s ARCS (attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction) model to enhance motivation, apply Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory to layer information, create authentic simulations using Merrill’s Instructional Transaction Theory, build instructional events using Gagné’s learning hierarchy, and use scaffolding strategies to help individualize instruction (Deubel 2003a).

The online K-12 course should appeal to various learning styles (SREB 2000; Fulton 2002). Designers might apply Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which provides a framework for individualizing learning in a standards-based environment through use of flexible materials and methods (Rose and Meyer 2002). UDL is based on Vygotsky’s three conditions for learning: the recognition system, the strategic system and the engagement system (Pisha and Coyne 2001). Successful teaching and learning requires the interaction of all three neural systems. Successful application of UDL means that electronic materials have built-in options to increase accessibility of content for learners who might differ greatly in their abilities to “see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, focus, engage, and remember” (NASBE 2001).

Rose and Meyer (2002) provided instructional design strategies for each neural pathway:

·        To support recognition learning, provide multiple examples using multimedia.

·        Highlight critical features to direct instruction or to provide scaffolding, which might be accomplished with animations, color highlighting, ability to zoom-in on photographic images, text and graphic emphases.

·        Provide various representations by using multiple media, formats, organizations, levels of detail, and degree of depth to engage more learners by offering both choice and redundancy. However, multiple representations should be considered in relationship to learning goals, nature of information, and characteristics of learners.

·        Support the acquisition of background knowledge, which students might access if and when they need it.

·        To support strategic networks, provide flexible models of skilled performance as well as opportunities to practice with supports to measure knowledge and ability, which are part of the learning activity rather than occurring at the end of instruction.

·        Provide ongoing, relevant feedback, and offer flexible opportunities for demonstrating skills.

·        To support engagement, offer choices of content and tools, adjustable levels of challenge, choices of rewards, and choices of learning context.

Teacher Quality

Has the teacher demonstrated his/her subject-matter expertise and been trained to teach online?

In addition to being “highly qualified” to teach the course subject matter — an NCLB mandate for teachers by the end of 2005-2006 — teachers need both technical competence and effective pedagogy to teach in an e-learning environment (SREB 2001). They need to learn how to use the course delivery software and be mentored during their first experience teaching online. Training might include discussions on topics such as online plagiarism, copyright laws, intellectual property rights, online assessment, use of streaming media, and a review of state standards and writing instructional objectives (Russo 2001).

Teachers also might need to help students with technical problems. They need good written-communication skills to provide timely feedback and regular progress reports to students, parents and students’ home school liaisons. They must ensure that interactions build a community of learners, effectively moderate online discussions, monitor frequency and quality of student participation in discussions, and assist students with managing time and completing assignments. Teachers also may need to adapt learning activities and assessments to accommodate students with disabilities (Thomas 2003).

As for face-to-face classes, teachers need to monitor the effectiveness of curriculum and instructional practices not just for learning, but also for how well students are engaging behaviorally, cognitively and emotionally (National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine 2004). They need to provide interventions for failing students and develop administrative grading reports (Thomas 2003). Potential online teachers must be aware that it takes up to two-and-a-half times longer to teach an online course than it d'es a face-to-face course due to the time spent communicating electronically, according to Liz Pape, CEO of Virtual High School (NASBE 2001). My own experience teaching online confirms that observation.

Student Roles

Before enrolling, can students determine if they are good candidates for online learning?

Online learning is not for every student. Students must have regular access to computer hardware and software that is appropriate for online learning. An online questionnaire and perhaps a sample online learning experience should be available to help students determine their learning style and if online learning is right for them (Russo 2001). For example, Gwinnett County Public Schools Online Campus ( and The University System of Georgia provide such online readiness tools.

Students should understand that those who tend to be successful have strong organizational skills; are highly motivated to learn; have good reading, writing and computer skills; and are not afraid to ask questions (NASBE 2001). According to Meyer (2003), there is evidence that a student with a visual learning style or an independent behavioral type might do better in a Web environment than a student who is aural, dependent and more passive.


Are assessments authentic, formative, regular and summative? Do they guard against cheating?

Online testing and creating valid assessments are issues affecting quality. In support of UDL, the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (2004) recommend ongoing assessment of students’ understanding and skills. Assessments include such measures as contributions to online discussions, completion of online assignments, portfolio submissions, projects/presentations, creation of authentic products, tests and quizzes, and student reflections on their own learning. Students also should be involved with evaluating their own work using rubrics, which are provided (Fulton 2002).

Faculty from the North Carolina Community College System had several suggestions to guard against cheating. Teachers should publicize content, format, rules and honor codes to students in advance. They should use test questions that require students to apply knowledge, and they should only use memory-testing questions to facilitate student progress. They should use software with test administration features, design alternate forms of the test, set a reasonable time for test completion, learn the writing style of students before testing, and use questions that require personal details from students. If security is an issue, consider local proctoring. Above all, online teachers should regard every test as “open book” and an opportunity to view assessment to not only measure learning, but also to serve as part of the learning process (Hollands 2000).

Management and Support Systems

Are secure administrative, technical and personal support systems available to instructors and students, which ensure uninterrupted, successful participation in the online environment?

Management should ensure that student work and personal data are secure as required by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (Fulton 2002). Technical assistance for both students and teachers should be available, including written online directions regarding the use of media. Management should provide teachers and students with orientation sessions for using the features contained in the course instruction delivery system (Phipps and Merisotis 2000). Berman and Pape (in Russo 2001) said it is critical that schools which offer online courses select someone to provide on-site support to students and to serve as a liaison with the online program staff. Student support systems should include guidance and administrative services, as well as a place to resolve conflicts. Instructor support should include access to other online practitioners, which would enable discussions of pedagogical and curricular issues (Fulton 2002).

Key to instructor success, and also to minimize costs of online instruction, is the use of a course management system. According to Twigg (2003), sophisticated software packages enable instructors to monitor student progress and performance, track their time on task, and intervene on an individualized basis, as needed. Course management systems can generate automatic messages such as suggesting additional activities based on homework and quiz performance, or encouraging greater participation in online discussions. Two other features that assist both faculty and students are an automated assessment of exercises, quizzes and tests in subjects that can be assessed in a standardized format, as well as modular online or CD-ROM-based tutorials presented with an interactive format.

EduTools ( — originally developed by Bruce Landon and British Columbia ’s Centre for Curriculum, Transfer & Technology — is a Web site that helps educators select and evaluate online course management systems. The site analysis includes technical specifications, instructional design values, tools and features, ease of use, potential for collaboration, and compliance with standards for more than 50 products. Resources to learn more about student services and e-learning policies are also available (Deubel 2003b). A key question to ask potential K-12 vendors is how their system supports data entry into a standard student information system for state reporting.

Technological Infrastructure

D'es the technological infrastructure support attainment of learning outcomes for all students?

Learning outcomes, not the availability of technology, should determine the technology used to deliver course content (Phipps and Merisotis 2000). In addition, the National Association of State Boards of Education (2001) stated, “All Internet sites operated by public education institutions should meet Web accessibility standards as is now required for all federal agencies.” The Web Accessibility Initiative ( provides a good starting point for Web development resources to ensure universal access. But sufficient bandwidth also must be available to support communication and engagement with course content.

Concluding Remarks

According to Allan Jordan, former chairman and current board member of NACOL, “Recent initiatives like No Child Left Behind and state accountability measures indicate the importance of virtual learning” (Lott 2003). Virtual learning provides an option for quality education whether it is used to expand course offerings for all students, to meet the needs of students who are at risk or high achieving, or for those whom traditional schooling has not worked. However, providing quality takes a committed effort for instructional design, financial commitment to the technological infrastructure, and a mental paradigm shift of educators for their role in delivering instruction. Hopefully, the guidelines presented in this article will prove helpful for key stakeholders involved with or considering K-12 online learning. However, any set of virtual learning standards or guidelines is just a starting point in determining quality. Ultimately, in my experience as an online student, online educator and courseware developer, authorship, implementation and consumer perspectives play a role in determining online course quality (Deubel 2003b).

Online Resources

·        Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology


·        CIPA at Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction 

·        No Child Left Behind Act (U.S. Department of Education site)


·        Stanford Copyright & Fair Use Center


·        The University System of Georgia’s Student Online Readiness Tool



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Author’s Bio

Patricia Deubel ([email protected]) earned a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University . She is currently an education consultant. Deubel has more than 29 years of secondary and university experience in mathematics and computer education teaching, teacher training, staff development, and curriculum development. She also has presented state and local computer workshops. In addition, Deubel is the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.