While adult interest in online courses at the college level appears to be waning, enrollment in virtual classes at the K-12 level is on the rise.
Nearly 620,000 students took an online course during the 2011-2012 school year, up 16 percent from the previous year, according to an annual report released this week by the Evergreen Education Group, which works with schools to implement online and blended learning programs.
The number of states and school districts requiring online courses for high school graduation also grew, as states aim to teach students how to operate in a an increasingly digital world. Lawmakers in Virginia and Idaho signed legislation in the past year requiring students to take at least one online course in order to earn a high school diploma, and the governor of Minnesota signed a law in May that "strongly encourages," but does not require, students to take an online course before graduating from high school.
Alabama, Florida, and Michigan already have laws on the books requiring virtual education for graduation, and school boards in multiple districts have enacted similar provisions, including Marietta City Schools in Georgia, Memphis City Schools and Putnam County Schools in Tennessee, and the Kenosha and Cedarburg School Districts in Wisconsin.
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For officials in those states and districts, requiring online courses for graduation is a necessary step toward college and career readiness.
"The reality is, when a student leaves us, whether they're going to a four-year college, a technical college, or going into the world of work, they're going to have to do an online course," Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Education, told Education Week last year while she was director of Putnam County schools. "This helps prepare the students."
While online learning can help prepare students for life after high school, the jury is still out on whether laws mandating virtual courses are the best route, says Amy Murin, a lead researcher at the Evergreen Education Group.
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"It depends on how [the laws are] implemented. It depends on what kind of access students have to different providers in the state," she says. "I would argue that Florida is positioned the best of any state in the country, simply because they have so many providers functioning in the state."
Students in Florida can choose among online learning programs offered by the state, their school district, and virtual charter schools approved by the state. In contrast, lawmakers in Indiana recently shot down an attempt to add online education to the state's graduation requirements, largely because of the limited number of virtual education providers in the state, Murin says.
"Districts would have been throwing together courses just to meet this requirement," she adds.
Legislation requiring online courses for graduation also needs to take rural students into consideration, she says, as students in some schools don't have access to the infrastructure needed to succeed in an online course.
"We have some towns in Colorado that just don't have broadband, because they can't—they're too rural," Murin says, noting that other states have similar challenges. "It's absolutely a big question, and a big concern in the implementation of those requirements."
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