Americans currently consume 3.6 zettabytes of digital information per day. Put another way, that’s 3.621 or 3,600,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. For the visual learners, picture the equivalent in paper stacked seven feet high across the U.S. including Alaska.1
The place of digital content in public education is therefore not a matter of debate; it is inevitable. But school leaders and education policymakers do need to consider how to manage the influx of online learning opportunities in order to make sure students get their full benefit and not end up lost in cyberspace.
In this report, the Center for Public Education describes various ways digital learning is offered to students, from individual online courses to full-time virtual schools. In addition, we examine current state and district policies that govern its administration, including funding and accountability; and we discuss what is known -- and more importantly, what is not known -- about the effect of online learning on student outcomes. We conclude with a list of questions for state and local policymakers to ask when considering policies to expand online learning.
The timing of this report is key. K-12 online learning is growing rapidly. Close to two million online courses are taken by public school students annually (Queen et al., 2011). The number of students in full-time online schools is four times what it was a decade ago, and grew by 50,000 to the current 250,000 in the last year alone (Watson et al., 2011).