E-Learning | Research

More Than Half of U.S. Districts Have Students in Distance Learning Programs

A majority of public school districts in the United States have students who participate in distance education courses at some level, according to data released by the National Center for Education Statistics. But the most of those districts aren't delivering the education themselves.

The report, "Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009-10," indicated that a full 55 percent of districts have students who were enrolled in distance education courses in the 2009-2010 school year (the latest full school year for which such information is available). Half of those districts reported that students were participating in distance courses provided by a higher education institution, 47 percent from independent vendors, and 33 percent from state virtual schools.

Three-quarters of those respondents indicated that all distance courses in which their students were enrolled were developed by organizations independent of the district itself.

Student Enrollments
Of those districts, 96 percent reported they had students at the high school level enrolled in distance education programs; 19 percent at the middle school level; and 6 percent at the elementary level. Another 4 percent reported enrollments of students at combined or ungraded levels.

The total number of public students enrolled in distance education courses, however, was significantly less than half, with about 1.82 million course enrollments, all told (with multiple enrollments counted individually for students enrolled in more than one course). The total population of public school primary and secondary students was approximately 49.3 million during that period, according to ED's published statistics.

Accordingly, enrollments were spread thinly throughout the districts, with the bulk--79 percent--having 100 or fewer enrollments in distance education courses. The following table shows the breakdown.

Public School District Distance Education Enrollments, 2009-2010
  Distance Course Enrollments
1 to 10 11 to 30 31 to 100 101 to 1,000 More than 1,000
All Public School Districts 25% 27% 27% 18% 3%
Student enrollment of 2,499 or fewer 31% 32% 28% 8% NA
Student enrollment of 2,500 to 9,999 15% 17% 28% 39% NA
Student enrollment of 10,000 or more 5% 9% 12% 50% 24%
Source: United States Department of Education, Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009-10, November 2011

The types of courses students took as part of their distance learning varied widely, including:

  • Advanced Placement (29 percent);
  • Career and technical education (27 percent);
  • Credit recovery (62 percent); and
  • Dual enrollment, or college-level courses for which students received both college and high school credit (47 percent).

Sixty-two percent also reported students enrolled in various other types of courses, including core and elective courses.

Lack of availability of a course within a student's school was the most frequently cited "very important" reason for districts to provide opportunities for distance learning, selected by 64 percent of those districts. Another 57 percent cited credit recovery for failed or missed courses as a "very important" consideration. The vast majority (82 percent) indicated that space limitations and revenue generation were unimportant considerations.

Technologies Used To Deliver Courses
The Internet coupled with asynchronous instruction was the most widely cited category of technology-delivered instruction, in use within 86 percent of all districts that reported distance education enrollments. This category was also the primary mode of instruction for roughly 63 percent of districts.

Two-way interactive video (videoconferencing) was cited as the primary delivery vehicle by about 17 percent of districts, with 42 percent reporting its use to some degree.

The Internet coupled with synchronous instruction was the primary delivery mode for 14 percent of districts and was reportedly in use to at least a small degree in 48 percent of districts.

Other modes for delivering distance education included computer-based technologies other than the Internet (cited by about 5 percent of districts as primary delivery method) and pre-recorded, one-way video (roughly 2 percent).

Overall, some form of Internet delivery of courses was in use by 90 percent of districts with students enrolled in distance education courses. Among those, 92 percent reported students accessing those courses from school; 78 percent reported home access; and 15 percent reported the use of other locations for accessing the Internet, including libraries and community centers.

District Monitoring and Policies
In terms of monitoring students' distance learning activities, nearly all districts (98 percent) gauged student progress through a final grade report, while 75 percent reported tracking interim grades. A large majority tracked completion and submission of assignments (80 percent) and attendance (70 percent). Only 56 percent monitored online activity, and a smaller 49 percent tracked time spent online.

Overall, 12 percent of districts said they do not allow students to enroll in another distance education course when they fail to complete one course; 6 percent reported making students wait a specified period of time before enrolling again after failing to complete a course.

These policies were harsher in districts with higher poverty concentrations. For example, among districts with a poverty concentration of less than 10 percent, only 8 percent said they prohibit students from re-enrolling after failing to complete a course, and only 4 percent reported enforcing a waiting period. Those figures were dramatically higher in schools with a poverty concentration of 20 percent or more--14 percent with prohibitions and 9 percent with waiting periods.

Poverty concentration also appeared to be a factor in district monitoring of students, with more monitoring happening in districts with highest poverty concentrations (20 percent or more), including 75 percent monitoring attendance (versus 57 percent in districts with the lowest poverty concentrations), 59 percent monitoring logins (versus 53 percent in low-poverty schools), and 55 percent monitoring time spent online (versus 46 percent in schools with the lowest poverty concentrations).

Other significant findings from districts that reported their students using distance learning included:

  • 74 percent indicated plans to expand distance education courses within three years of the survey;
  • 14 percent offered distance courses to students who were not "regularly enrolled" in the district;
  • 6 percent reported that their students cross borders to attend a state virtual school in a different state and 3 percent a distance program provided by a school or district in a different state;
  • 18 percent reported delivering distance education courses within their own districts, including 4 percent by online charter schools.

Further details, including the complete NCES report, can be accessed freely on the NCES portal on ed.gov.