Digital Learning/Distance Education
The term "Distance Education", often used interchangeably with "Virtual education", is defined as instruction during which students and teachers are separated by time and/or location and interact via computers and/or telecommunications technologies. Virtual education ranges from straightforward coursework presented online for students to view at their own pace; to interactive, real-time instruction between teachers and students over an electronic medium unconstrained by geographic or temporal boundaries. When properly employed by skilled instructors, technology can make many learning opportunities available to any student, at any location, and at any time.
The Department of Education regulates the approval of distance education courses and programs according to NRS388 and NAC388. See working definitions below for "course" and "program".
- Course: The organization of subject matter and related learning experiences for the instruction of students on a regular or systematic basis. Courses are usually offered to an individual or group of students (e.g., a class) for a predetermined period of time (e.g., a semester, two weeks), although pacing may vary in a virtual setting.
- Program: A series of courses that build upon one another to provide either depth or breath within a subject matter area. A virtual or traditional school may offer a virtual program that consists of a series of related courses offered virtually. Thus, the term "course" refers to subject matter content, whereas the term "class" refers to the setting in which a course is offered to one or more students. Within a given school and mathematics program, there might be several classes for the same algebra II course. All of the classes would cover the same subject matter, but they might meet at different times (e.g., 1st period, 7:00 p.m., or "student-paced and not at a specific time"), attract different groups of students (e.g., 10th grade students or adult students), rely upon different instructional approaches (e.g., instructor-led or self-taught), and use various media for communication between students and instructors (e.g., face-to-face or online).
Because the technology driving virtual education permits participation regardless of administrative boundaries-attendance areas, county lines, and state borders-restrictions on participation have largely become administrative and policy issues. These policy decisions are often constrained by overarching rules and regulations, such as local or state laws limiting the transfer of funds across administrative boundaries or regulations requiring specific academic credentials to teach within a particular state or school district.
Given the breadth and depth of issues that affect, and are affected by, virtual education, policymakers must simultaneously demonstrate foresight and caution as they grapple with important pedagogical and policy choices. In many circumstances, virtual education can be a powerful tool that allows students and teachers to access otherwise unavailable expertise, information, and experience. Virtual education is especially useful when decisionmakers choose to:
- offer coursework not otherwise possible (e.g., when offering a class is not feasible because too few students have enrolled);
- access instructional expertise or materials not otherwise available;
- present instructional material in a format better suited to some students' learning needs;
- introduce supplementary experiences otherwise impractical to offer in real time and space, such as virtual field trips (e-trips);
- maximize educational opportunities beyond traditional school hours;
- eliminate travel time between instructional locations;
- permit students to set their own learning pace;
- offer instruction to hospitalized, incarcerated, homebound, and other students physically unable to travel to a school site;
- offer services to homeschooled students and their parents;
- provide services to students who may prefer alternative settings (for example, to avoid bullying or because they do not function well in a social setting); and/or
- ensure equity of instructional opportunity for all students regardless of school assignment (for example, to equalize options in urban, suburban, and rural settings).
According to the North Central Regional Education Laboratory publication, Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning (NCREL® 2004), public virtual education arises in five basic types of administrative structures: statewide supplemental programs, district-level supplemental programs, single-district cyberschools, multidistrict cyberschools, and cyber charter schools. While a wide range of configurations exist within these basic categories (such as exclusively virtual schools versus schools that mix virtual and traditional offerings), some features are common to each category and help describe the range of public virtual education programs:
- Statewide supplemental programs offer courses to students enrolled in a traditional school or a cyberschool anywhere in the state. These programs are authorized in some way by state-level authority (for example, a state education agency regulation or a state law) to operate on a statewide basis.
- District-level supplemental programs offer courses to students enrolled in a traditional school within a single district. These programs exist in many states, but they are not always monitored by state education agencies because they are operated within autonomous districts.
- Single-district cyberschools are run as stand-alone schools by individual school districts for district residents seeking an alternative to the physical school environment. They are often housed within one of the district's physical schools. In most states, the number of students enrolled in single-district cyberschools is quite small, but the these programs are growing rapidly in size and number as school districts seek to retain students they may otherwise lose to multidistrict cyberschools.
- Multidistrict cyberschools are operated by, or chartered within, individual school districts, but they enroll students from several or many school districts throughout a state. These programs represent the largest growth sector in elementary/secondary online learning.
- Cyber charter schools exist in many states that allow charter schools. They are chartered within a single district but usually operate as multidistrict cyberschools. Cyber charter schools are sometimes operated by commercial vendors. Some states have enacted legislation specifying expectations for these schools with regard to program quality and accessibility. Other states apply general charter school laws and regulations to cyber charter schools.