Research and Practice in K-12 Online Learning: A Review of Open Access Literature
Cathy S. Cavanaugh
University of Florida, USA
Michael K. Barbour
Wayne State University, USA
TA Consulting, Illinois, USA
The literature related to online learning programs for K-12 students dates to the mid-1990s and builds upon a century of research and practice from K-12 distance education. While K-12 online learning programs have evolved and grown over the past decade, the amount of published research on virtual schooling practice and policy is limited. The current literature includes practitioner reports and experimental and quasi-experimental studies, both published and unpublished. This paper reviews open access literature in K-12 online learning and reports on a structured content analysis of the documents. Themes in the literature include steady growth and a focus on the benefits, challenges, and broad effectiveness of K-12 online learning. In addition, newly developed standards for K-12 online learning are emerging in descriptions of effective practices.
Keywords: K-12; open source; online education
In North America and other industrialized countries, distance education for elementary and secondary students is seen as a solution to several educational problems, including crowded schools, a shortage of secondary courses for remedial or accelerated students, a lack of access to qualified teachers in a local school, and the challenge to accommodate students who need to learn at a pace or in a place different from a school classroom (Cavanaugh & Clark, 2007). In less industrialized nations, K-12 online education is seen as a social and economic development strategy (Moore & Kearsley, 2005). Thus, it is clear why K-12 distance education programs are developing rapidly around the world and why growth in K-12 online course enrollments has outstripped that of other educational formats in recent years (Setzer & Lewis, 2005). A fundamental challenge in this relatively new educational field for program developers, managers, and instructors is locating guidance from successful practice and from research and literature.
Online learning is a form of distance education whose central defining characteristic is the separation of teacher and learner (Keegan, 1996). Watson, Winograd, and Kalmon (2004) defined online learning as “education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily via the Internet” (p. 95). Many K-12 online learning programs in North American are referred to as virtual schools. Clark (2001) defined a virtual school as "an educational organization that offers K-12 courses through Internet- or Web-based methods” (p. 1). The literature related to online learning programs for K-12 students began to grow in the mid-1990s, building upon a century of research and practice from K-12 distance education (Clark, 2003; Edelson & Pitman, 2001). Although K-12 online learning programs have evolved and grown over the past decade, there is a limited amount of published research on virtual schooling practice (Barbour & Reeves, 2009). The current literature includes practitioner reports and experimental and quasi-experimental studies, both published and unpublished.
The authors reviewed the existing open access literature in K-12 online learning and report on a structured content analysis of selected documents. Previous reviews of the research on K-12 online learning have used both qualitative and quantitative methods (Cavanaugh, 2001; Cavanaugh, 2004; Rice, 2006; Smith, Blomeyer & Clark, 2005). These reviews were limited to dozens of studies and reports, compared to recent reviews of the literature on adult online learning, which included hundreds of studies (e.g., Machtmes & Asher, 2000; Allen, et al., 2002; Bernard, et al., 2003; Shachar & Neumann, 2003; Ungerleider & Burns, 2003). As an example of the growth in the published literature in K-12 online learning, of 226...
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