In "Distance and Virtual Learning in the United States," Peter J. Dirr suggests that the present-day virtual learning is the fourth phase of an evolutionary process that began with correspondence courses in the 19th century, progressed to televised courses in the 1950s and then went on to online postsecondary courses in the late 1980s. In fact, the term "distance learning" encompasses a wide variety of learning modes, including:
Some might add to this list:
- Online tutorials
- Provision of an online or televised course (interactive or not) within an otherwise traditional, classroom-based course of study
- Provision of online courses for home-schooled students
- Provision of teacher professional development through online courses or resources
- Provision of all of an institution's courses via the Internet or other technology.
A review of online courses and institutions across the United States suggests that most virtual offerings are at the secondary-school level. Online courses are much more common than are fully-virtual secondary institutions. According to Market Data Retrieval, 15% of American high schools provide online courses; some states, districts and universities host virtual high schools.
- Student interaction with a computer within a classroom setting (i.e., accessing a teacher's web page for research tips, homework assignments, etc.)
- Electronic textbooks
- Electronic assessments.
States and districts implementing distance/virtual education programs should consider the following:
States are examining how distance education can assist teachers in better preparing students for state-level assessments. Massachusetts' Virtual Education Space (VES) is the result of a collaborative effort between the Massachusetts Department of Education and various state-level education groups, and corporate partners. VES provides educators with information on the state standards as well as their local district's curriculum framework. Teachers can also search VES for standards-aligned classroom activities and resources, log on for professional development or engage in discussion with other educators in the state. In another venture launched in the fall of 2001, 14 states joined together to create the U.S. Open e-Learning Consortium to share knowledge and experience in the many facets of virtual learning, such as testing, software and information storage. The consortium's first project will be the interstate exchange of individual test items and the development and implementation of an online assessment program.
- Teaching styles in the classroom are quite different from those via television or the Internet. Distance teachers need to be prepared to spend more time checking and responding to e-mails and answering phone calls than their classroom-based colleagues. In addition, an instructor who provides lively classroom lectures may not be as compelling in his/her online course, or may be reluctant to respond to student messages.
- As has been stated by many educators, including those who support distance learning, not all students are suited to televised courses or online programs. Successful distance learning students must be self-motivated and disciplined; students who fall behind in class will have great difficulty catching up.
- Many online courses/programs are offered by for-profit providers. Schools and districts must consider whether they wish to contract with a for-profit provider, who may have considerable expertise, but whose content and delivery they may not be able to satisfactorily customize.
One of the most recent developments in the provision of distance learning is the proliferation of virtual charter schools. State and local education leaders have expressed concern that virtual charter institutions may not be able to adequately monitor, for funding purposes, whether students are indeed attending "class," and whether students logging on are in-district students or are perhaps private or home-schooled students not registered with the district but participating free of charge in the state-funded courses. Online charter schools are currently the subject of litigation in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
For information on technology in classrooms and schools, please visit the ECS Technology Issue Site.
- State legislation
- Peter J. Dirr, Distance and Virtual Learning in the United States, from The Development of Virtual Education: A Global Perspective
- Glen M. Farrell, ed., The Commonwealth of Learning, Vancouver, 1999
- James Veitch and Pikuei Tu, Virtual Education: Where Are We?, School Business Affairs, December 2001
- Andrew Trotter, Online Education Consortium Created for States, Education Week, November 7, 2001
- Kathleen Vail, Online Learning Grows Up, www.electronic-school.com, September 2001
- Fourteen States Collaborate on eLearning, eSchool News staff and wire service reports, January 1, 2002
- Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2002-03, National Center for Education Statistics, March 2005