While Ohio's higher education cyber-learning landscape is firmly established (see here), the K-12 cyber-school landscape is still in its infancy. Of Ohio's 1.7 million students, 23,000 were enrolled full-time in one of the state's 28 cybercharters in 20-2008. In addition, the Ohio General Assembly recently established the first statewide high-school interactive distance-learning pilot program. Despite these efforts, however,  little is known about the scale of online courses offered beyond the cybercharter sector, although the Ohio Department of Education has just started collecting data on online classes offered by traditional schools, district coops and the like (see here).

The data emerging indicate that Ohio's K-12 school system is evolving  a rich and complicated cyber-learning sector. Districts, educational service centers, magnet schools, universities and colleges, charter schools, career-tech centers, and private vendors all offer cyber courses of various types. For example, Lorain County Community College allows high-school students to enroll as part of a post-secondary option (see here). More unconventional providers of cyber-learning programs are the Columbus Zoo (see here) and the Cincinnati Art Museum (see here), both of which offer supplemental online programs for interested teachers and students.

Cyber programs can span a district, the state, or the globe and they can embrace a spectrum of courses and subjects (see here and here). Some Ohio cybercharters (11) serve one county, while 14 serve multiple counties. Three cybercharters serve students statewide. None of Ohio's cybercharters, however, offers courses to students beyond the state's borders, but Ohio students may choose courses offered by an e-school based outside the Buckeye State.

Programs can be full or part time. Online or interactive distance learning courses are offered, for the most part, as part-time options and are included as part of a school's curriculum or offered through another provider. An example is Jefferson County ESC, which offers over 80 online and interactive distance learning courses that can be taken by home-schooled students, home-confined or prison-confined students, or students needing a course that they missed in their traditional high school (see here).

While some students take course at home via the Internet, other programs are offered in a blended environment with students attending a brick-and-mortar classroom several times a week and spending the rest of the time learning at home. For example, in the New Albany-Plain Local School District, high-school Spanish IV is taught in real time through distance learning (see here) via the Internet. In other districts, such as Anna Local, students who do not have space in their real-time schedules can take courses through Virtual High School, a nationwide program that offers online learning courses, to supplement their traditional academic schedule (see here).

Online courses offer promise to spread quality instruction, and to allow students to take courses to which they might not otherwise have access. Online education also allows schools deliver programs at less cost. Yet, the promise of cyber-learning may be usurped if the e-courses lack quality. Bill Tucker of Education Sector (see here) has offered four guidelines for improving the cyber-learning policy environment. They must:

  • ensure quality and innovation by fostering transparency and accelerating innovation;
  • create dynamic models for funding and accountability;
  • enable true reciprocity for certified teachers; and
  • integrate these efforts with other school reforms.

What's needed immediately is an assessment of Ohio's K-12 cyber-learning sector. The scope and scale of these offerings are not clear. How many students are served? How many provider types are there? Who are they and do they know what they are doing? Which students are being served? What is the impact of cyber-learning, or, in other words, how are these students doing academically compared to students receiving face-to-face or blended instruction? What does effective cyber-instruction cost and how should it be funded?

Also, what should be the connection between these myriad K-12 programs and the Ohio Learning Network (OLN), which supports and facilitates distance and online learning in Ohio's higher education system (see here)? What lessons can Ohio's K-12 system draw from the OLN?

Several states have implemented statewide cyber-learning programs. Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and Georgia's state-run high-school virtual schools collectively served 200,000 students in 20-2009. How can Ohio take advantage of and learn from the excellent work of these programs?

Ohio has planted seeds to grow its K-12 cyber-learning opportunities. Still, much more work will need to be done to take maximum advantage of cyber-learning's promise as online courses and programs proliferate. Ohio's students deserve every opportunity for an excellenteducation. Online learning is most certainly one of those opportunities, and now it must be encouraged with both good evaluation and practice.

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