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Aurora Institute

What Does it All Mean?

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Learn Lessons from the Field

It’s understandable that so many online education policy enthusiasts get passionate over online learning – after all, there is much to be excited about. In online learning, we find that some of the best teachers are personalizing learning for students so they can learn any time and everywhere, using digital resources and online tools. They are extending learning opportunities and providing courses that were previously unavailable to students because of geography or limited course offerings at brick and mortar schools. Virtual learning can offer an array of services to students – sometimes providing just one or two courses, other times offering an entire school that provides all of a students’ courses via the Internet, guided by a high-quality teacher. These are exciting times to be part of this new frontier. Recently, I attended a meeting for the International Advisory Board for Virtual Schools and Colleges, supported by the European Union. As I mentioned in my previous post, virtual schools have been part of the United States for K-12 students since the mid-1990s, but in other parts of the world, they are a new innovation. The estimated number of virtual schools in the U.S. is about 225 virtual schools, and the remaining 250 virtual schools are throughout the rest of the world, from Asia to the Middle East and across Europe.

The E.U. is putting together an inventory of virtual schools worldwide on a new wiki. At the E.U. advisory meeting, I explained the taxonomy for helping to understand the types of virtual schools in the United States (from the Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning 2010 report). There are many more types of blended learning programs emerging (but we’ll save that discussion for another day).

Attending the meeting were a few education experts and policy makers who were new to virtual schools in primary and secondary education. It reminded me that sometimes we need to explain the basics of online learning. Not completely coincidentally, iNACOL recently published, “A National Primer for K-12 Online Learning,” which we’ve made available online.

There are a lot of definitions for terms in online learning floating around the Internet, but they aren’t easily accessible, and in many cases, one set of definitions conflicts with another, which can be endlessly frustrating. That is a large part of the reason our team pulled together a comprehensive set of definitions that parents, students, policymakers and the media could use to get a better grip on the expanding universe of online and blended learning.

We started with a literature review of existing definitions. Then, iNACOL’s Research Committee analyzed these definitions and conducted a survey among our members and experts in the field to refine the definitions.

Following is a sampling of some of the key terms in the field. This is in no way the full list.

  • Blended courses are those that combine two modes of instruction: online and faceto-face.
  • Online learning is characterized by instruction and content that are delivered primarily over the Internet.
  • Finally, a virtual school is a formally constituted organization – whether public, private, state, charter or other – that offer courses delivered primarily over the Internet. This term is synonymous with the terms “Virtual school”, “eSchool,” and “Online School” in some state policies.

More tomorrow!