What's Online Education All About?


Unless you are directly involved with teaching online, have students taking courses online, or have taken an online course yourself, chances are that you find the concept of online education quite nebulous. You might not have any interest in it. Terms like distance education, fully online, blended courses, virtual courses, e-learning, hybrid courses, mixed-mode, asynchronous learning, distributed learning, Web-facilitated, and Web-enhanced learning add to the confusion (Picciano & Seaman, 2007, pp. 1-2). However, online learning is on the rise in K-12 education, and you should know some of the basics and issues surrounding it. It is adding flexibility to the traditional school experience, meeting the needs of specific groups of students, and increasing course offerings. If it has not already done so, it probably will affect your teaching scenario before too long. So, what's online education all about? Well ... it's all in who you ask or what resources you consult.

Confusing terms
There seems to be no unique definition of online learning. Terms are sometimes used incorrectly or interchangeably. It's not synonymous with distance education or distance learning. Watson and Ryan (2006) indicate that online learning is "Education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily via the Internet. Online learning is a form of distance learning" (p. 134). Distance learning has in past included correspondence courses and includes education delivered via CD-ROM or videoconferencing. Online learning is often confused with e-learning; however, this latter is an umbrella term referring to "Instruction and content delivered via digital technologies, such as online or CD-ROM, or learning experiences that involve the use of computers" (p. 134). E-learning can also be delivered via interactive TV or satellite broadcast (Worldwidelearn.com E-learning Glossary). Michigan Merit Curriculum Guidelines (2006) defines online learning broadly as "A structured learning activity that utilizes technology with intranet/internet-based tools and resources as the delivery method for instruction, research, assessment, and communication" (p. 1).

When it comes to funding, definitions of online learning need to be precise, and many are not sufficient. For example, there is a difference between taking a fully online course for school credit and using the Internet to do a Webquest assigned in a traditional face to face course. For the purpose of collecting accurate data on online learning, administrators concerned about funding might prefer course definitions that Picciano and Seaman (2007) used in their K-12 Online Learning: A survey of U.S. school district administrators:

  • Online: Course where most or all of the content is delivered online. Defined as at least 80 percent of seat time being replaced by online activity.
  • Blended/Hybrid: Course that blends online and face to face delivery. Substantial proportion (30 percent to 79 percent) of the content is delivered online.
  • Web-Facilitated: Course that uses Web-based technology (1 percent to 29 percent of the content) to facilitate what is essentially a face to face course (p. 2).

What Is Available?
The University of Western Australia (2005) says, "An online learning environment can include any or all of a number of aspects ranging from administration details relevant to the class to learning experiences mediated through interactive multimedia to a total course delivered via the Internet. An online learning environment can supplement or complement a traditional face to face learning environment, or it may provide a complete learning package that requires little face to face contact" (para. 4-5).

I view online learning more in terms of fully online or blended/hybrid courses that students can take from public, private, or for-profit entities. Courses ranging from art to math to zoology are available. Students can register for individual classes in online programs while still enrolled in traditional settings, or enroll in virtual schools to take most or all their courses online. They can take courses using computers at their homeschools where on site help is available, or only at their homes, or from any location where computers are available. Those courses might be offered by independent vendors (e.g., Apex Learning), their school district, another district within or outside of their state, or charter schools within or outside of their local district. State-supported virtual schools within or outside of their state, state technology service agencies, consortia (e.g., Virtual High School), and colleges and universities also offer online courses (Picciano & Seaman, 2007), some of which attract students globally. Courses might be totally asynchronous (i.e., everyone does not have to be online at the same time), synchronous (i.e., communications are set for a specific time when all must be present), or a combination of both.

Viewpoints and Demos
You've heard "A picture is worth a thousand words." Sound also captivates. George Lucas Foundation's Edutopia, in collaboration with the Southern Regional Education Board, has captured that essence in their multimedia module called Online Learning. Get an overview, up close analysis, perspectives, and resources on how online learning is transforming secondary education. You will see students taking their online courses, hear why they take online courses, and then hear administrator perspectives on how their schools and districts benefit. Listen as actual online teachers from Florida Virtual School, Clark County Virtual High School, West Virginia Virtual, and Virtual High School describe their experiences. Resources include links to reports and books on online learning, and demos from Florida Virtual School, Kentucky Virtual High School, Virtual High School, and University of California College Prep Online to illustrate the variety of classes available. You can also find out if you are a good candidate for online learning.

Students take online courses for many reasons. They might not be able to fit a required course into a traditional schedule. They have interest in learning from students outside of their traditional school, even from countries as far away as China and Africa. They are pulled by opportunities for dual enrollment and to take elective classes that might not otherwise be possible during the traditional school day, or to gain a competitive edge when preparing for college. They might want to take electives not available in their school course offerings, such as advanced courses when their school only offers the introductory course (e.g., computer programming). Online courses also accommodate students with special needs, such as those with health problems, full-time jobs, family constraints, or those that have fallen behind or failed a course in traditional school settings, and those with heavy schedules of extracurricular activities (e.g., sports with rigorous training and competition schedules with extensive travel involved).

Administrators like that additional courses can be offered (e.g., Latin, German, astronomy, psychology, and advanced placement), which their district might not otherwise afford to do so. Online courses also can help resolve scheduling conflicts and staffing issues. There might not be qualified teachers for a particular subject area, or, even when the qualified teacher is available, that teacher might be needed to teach core subjects rather than an elective in his/her certified field. Online courses also increase opportunities for teachers to teach topics of particular interest to them.

Concerns about online learning have a great deal to do with ensuring quality, course development and/or purchasing costs, funding based on attendance in online and blended/hybrid courses, and the need for teacher training (Picciano & Seaman, 2007). The Trujillo Commission on Online Education (Trujillo, Griffith, Snyder, & Urschel, 2007) in Colorado notes quality standards should include a shared vision and purpose; governance, leadership and an organizational structure to support learning and successful school performance; a research-based curriculum and instructional program; highly qualified teachers who are not only credentialed in their field, but who are trained in online teaching and learning methodology and appropriate uses of technology; engaging course content that is aligned to standards; instructional design focused on multiple means of engagement, multiple means of student assessment with appropriate feedback, and bias-free multicultural education principles. Design should feature a variety of technology tools, and meets accessibility standards. Courses should be evaluated regularly and updated. There is a comprehensive information and assessment system in place, which is used to improve teaching and learning. Resources and support services are available to assist learners. The school also strives to build effective relationships with and among stakeholders. The Commission also stated, "Accreditation of online programs should be consistent with that of traditional schools wherever possible. The additional accreditation standards for online should be limited to areas that are unique to online learning" (p. 11).

Finally, a large barrier to the growth of online learning comes from outdated 20th century policies that don't work with new modes of 21st century learning, such as "[o]nline course delivery across borders." It no longer makes sense to require students to be taught "by state-certified teachers residing in the state," nor to have "seat time requirements ... in an environment where true educational outcomes can be easily tracked and substituted instead" (Watson & Ryan, 2006, p. 11).

What's online education all about? The short answer is: "increasing opportunities." Armed with this introduction to K-12 online learning, its definitions, availability, viewpoints, demos, and concerns, why not expand the adventure by taking your next professional development course online? OnlineTeacherEd.com provides an easy to search directory of regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States that offer certificate programs and various degree programs in education in a distance-education format for teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals.  Bonus features include subject matter resources, monthly newsletters about distance education and electronic portfolios, and research and reports on education technology and policy issues. Work in the comfort of your own home and enjoy!


Michigan Merit Curriculum Guidelines (2006). Retrieved March 26, 2007

Picciano, A., & Seaman, J. (2007). K-12 online learning: A survey of U.S. school district administrators. Retrieved March 26, 2007, from The Sloan Consortium

Trujillo, L., Griffith, K., Snyder, T., & Urschel, J. (2007). The Trujillo commission on online education: Final findings and recommendations (Colorado). Retrieved March 26, 2007, from North American Council of Online Learning

University of Western Australia (2005). Towards a definition of online learning at UWA. Retrieved March 26, 2007

Watson, J., & Ryan, J. (2006, October). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: A review of state level policy and practice. Retrieved March 26, 2007, from North American Council of Online Learning


About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University and an education consultant. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.

Have any additional questions? Want to share your story? Want to pass along a news tip? Contact Dave Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].

About the Author

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net. She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.