Introduction to Distance Education: Virtual K-12 Schools

December 22, 2013

Dr. Fred Saba

Dr. Fred Saba

Farhad (Fred) Saba, Ph. D.

Since the turn of the century, there has been a dramatic growth in distance education for K-12 students. In 2000 only 14 states planned and operated state-sanctioned virtual k-12 schools. This was by directly establishing such schools, or by legislative action and provision of funds for local public schools or licensing the the private sector to establish and operate such schools. (Clark 2001). In the academic year 2009-10 fifty-five percent of public school districts throughout the country reported having students enrolled in distance education courses (Queen, Lewis, Laurie, and Coopersmith, 2011). Among those districts, 96 percent reported having students enrolled in distance education courses at the high school level, 19 percent at the middle or junior high school level, 6 percent at the elementary school level, and 4 percent in combined or ungraded schools. Courses offered by these schools had and estimated 1,816,400 enrollees. Seventy-nine percent of districts with students enrolled in distance education courses reported enrollments of 100 or fewer students, with 25 percent reporting 1 to 10 enrollments, 27 percent reporting 11 to 30 enrollments, and 27 percent reporting 31 to 100 enrollments . The majority of districts reported that providing courses not otherwise available at the school (64 percent) and providing opportunities for students to recover course credits from classes missed or failed were very important reasons for having distance education courses in their district.  Arizona had the highest percentage of full-time multi-district online schools, while Florida and North Carolina served the highest percentages of students. Nevertheless, virtual schools include a very small fraction of (1%) of all the K-12 students enrolled throughout the United States (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013).

“A virtual school”is an educational organization that offers K-12 courses through Internet- or Web-based methods.”  (Clark, 2001)

Virtual K-12 schools have grown because they:

  • Offer courses that are not available otherwise,
  • Meet the needs of specific groups of students,
  • Provide Advanced Placement or college-level courses,
  • Permit students who failed a course to take it again (e.g., credit recovery), and
  • Reduce scheduling conflicts for students (Picciano, Seaman, Shea, and Swan, 2012).

Students perceive working at their own pace and flexibility as two major benefits of online learning. However, they expect their teachers to be proactive in offering them instruction, and timely feedback (Dikkers 2001). “Students expect virtual teachers to instruct rather than moderate, to supplement course content, to make content and projects relevant, to incorporate discussion and interaction, to respond to questions and grade assignments quickly, and to provide individualized attention when necessary (Oliver, Osborne, & Brady, 2009, as quoted in Dikkers 2011). As in other levels of distance education (e.g. higher education) drop out rates are higher among virtual K-12 learners as compared to those who attend brick and mortar schools. This, generally, has been attributed to the sense of isolation of the online. A review of research conducted by Maiami-Dade County Pubic Schools (2009) identified the following characteristics for students who succeed in learning at a distance:

  • self-motivation;
  • independent learning skills;
  • self-direction;
  • self-discipline;
  • ability to work well without the structure of a conventional classroom;
  • ability to learn from visual materials;
  • strong written communication skills;
  • personal commitment to learn;
  • computer literate;
  • reading and writing at grade level;
  • skilled in time management;
  • consistent parent support and guidance;
  • comfortable asking for help;
  • positive attitude; and
  • involvement in extracurricular activities and hobbies.

In a study of virtual school learners Barbour, and McLaren (2012) found that:

  • Students liked their experience in learning in a virtual school primary because of the independence it offered
  • Students enjoyed being taught by well prepared and knowledgeable teachers
  • Technical difficulties were not an issue for the majority of students
  •  Students developed a sense of community among each other as well as connected and bonded with their teachers.
  • Students required more information from their teachers about the course content offered through the learning management systems, and how to study such materials. “…there is a need for more effective teaching strategies in this virtual schooling, particularly asynchronous teaching methods.”

More in-depth studies, such as, the one conducted by Barbour and McLaren is needed to understand the nature of virtual teaching and learning better, and develop better instructional strategies that are indigenous to distance education. Comparative studies of virtual leaning with brick and mortar learning have not shed any significant light on how to design more effective courses or teaching and learning strategies. Invariably such studies have reported that there is no statistically significant difference between distance education and brick and mortar education. Other areas of concern, such as, cost effectiveness of virtual schools require further research and development as well.


Barbour, M. K., & McLaren, A. (2012). It’s not that tough: Students speak about their online learning experience. Turkish journal of Distance Education. Retrieved from

Clark, T. (2001). Virtual schools: trends and issues. Distance Learning Resource Network. Retrieved from

Council of Chief State School Officers. (2013). School choice in the states: A policy landscape. Retrieved from

Dikkers, A. G. (2011). Being present in line learning: The virtual high school student perspective. 18th Annual Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning. Retrieved from

Maiami-Dade County Pubic Schools (2009). Literature review: Virtual schools. Retrieved from

Picciano, A. G., Seaman, J., Shea, P., Swan, K. (2012). Examining the extent and nature of online learning in American K-12 Education: The research initiatives of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Internet and Higher Education. 15 (2), 127-135.

Queen, B., Lewis, Laurie, & Coopersmith, J. (2011). Distance education courses for public elementary and secondary school students: 2009-10.  US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistic. NCES 2012-008. Retrieved from