Email Status

Volume 25, Number 1
January/February 2009

Learning Across Distance

Virtual-instruction programs are growing rapidly, but the impact on "brick-and-mortar" classrooms is still up in the air


A student from Oakman High School in Walker County, Alabama, taking a Spanish class taught by a teacher at Sheffield High School in Colbert County, Alabama.

Online education is undergoing a sea change in the state of Florida. Starting in 2009–2010, any student who meets certain eligibility requirements will be able to attend school virtually, thanks to legislation enacted last July. Florida’s 67 school districts will be required to offer full-time virtual instruction for K–8 students and full-time or supplemental instruction for grades 9–12. Districts may develop virtual-education programs themselves or in collaboration with other districts, or they may contract with accredited providers approved by the Florida Department of Education. The mandate is intended to extend a state program that started as a pilot in 2003–2004 to the district level. The pilot program offered only two providers, Florida Virtual Academy and Florida Connections Academy, and capped the number of K–8 students who could enroll in online courses.

Florida’s new mandate for districts is only the latest development in a trend that began a decade ago. At that time, according to Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the Vienna, Va.-based North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), the biggest driver behind online programs was demand for specialized or advanced courses that were otherwise unavailable in local schools. A 2008 report, “Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning,” (PDF) commissioned by NACOL and others, defines online learning as “teacher-led education that takes place over the Internet, with the teacher and student separated geographically.” The term “distance learning” includes online education (Florida’s legislation calls it “virtual” education), but is considered a broader category that includes use of computers, television, or satellites to deliver instruction.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

C.M. Christensen, M.B. Horn and C.W. Johnson. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York: McGraw Hill, 2008.

“Evaluating Online Learning: Challenges and Strategies for Success,” U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology, 2008. Available online at:

North American Council for Online Learning

J. Watson. “Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice,” [PDF] Learning Point Associates/North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2005.

J. Watson, B. Gemin and J. Ryan. “Keeping Pace with K–12 Online Learning: A Review of State-Level Policy and Practice,” Evergreen Consulting Associates, 2008. Available online at: