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Over recent years, many students considering careers in STEM have experienced taking classes online.  82% of high school administrators interviewed in the U.S. had at least one student enrolled in a fully online course and 38% had at
least one student enrolled in a blended or hybrid course. This growing trend has several benefits, including the ability to study when and where convenient.  For some students, online education opens opportunities to take courses remotely that are not available in their local communities.  But navigating the landscape of these new and changing online education options can be challenging.  The resources below are meant to help provide both high school and university students with more information about choosing and completing online courses.  Be sure to also check with your guidance counselor for additional information to help you select online options that will work for you! 

What is Online Education?

Online or "distance" education is defined as a formal education process in which the students and instructor are not in the same place. This type of education includes courses and programs that are formally designated as purely "online," or "hybrid/blended" which is a combination of online and in-class instruction. 

Online Courses at High Schools

All but two states now offer online courses to at least some students. Most of these programs are "blended" so that some work is done in a classroom setting and other work done online. Twenty seven states currently allow students to attend virtual schools full-time. Among other benefits, online courses allow students to work at their own pace, with advanced students moving through the curriculum quickly while others might get more of the attention they need from teachers. 

Virtual High Schools

Most U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have at least one full-time online school operating statewide. Purely online public schools, also known as "virtual schools" or "e-Schools,"  are generally overseen by their state's department of education and should be regionally accredited. There are also a growing number of virtual private schools. Examples include Massachusetts's Virtual High School, the Florida Virtual School, and George Washington University Online High School, and the EPGY Online High School at Stanford University, but lists of many others are available here.  Before enrolling in a program, be sure to verify its accreditation. Many organizations are providing curriculum to virtual K-12 schools, so another aspect of research in addition to confirming the accreditation of a particular school is to determine where the curriculum was developed, and whether it has proven successful at other schools. Talk with parents and students to find out what the online experience has been like for them. The size of these online schools vary greatly, from many schools with fewer than 2,500 course enrollments (one student taking one semester-long course) to the Florida Virtual School, with more than 220,000 course enrollments. Together, the state virtual schools had about 450,000 course enrollments in 2009-10. This was an increase of nearly 40% over the previous year.

Taking Online College Courses While in High School

Many students choose to take online courses offered through universities while they are in high school to augment their high school course load.  Some of these courses result in college credit, others can be taken purely for the educational experience.  Programs such as those offered by Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and Stanford University's Education Program for Gifted Youth provide pathways for students as young as middle school to take college level work if they are ready for it. MIT's Open Courseware program allows high school students to explore coursework online. In addition, many high schools are connected with universities to arrange for online (and ongound) coursework.

University Online Education

U.S. News and World Report recently posted a ranking of the "best" online undergraduate and graduate programs. That fact that online programs required their own ranking is notable, but as with any educational choice, you need to do your own research and make your own decisions about the programs that will work for you.  Most universities offer online courses, podcasts of lectures, and other resources so students have the opportunity to learn outside of the classroom.  However, bear in mind that online learning must be coupled with interactive experiences with other students and interaction with the instructor to be most effective.  Be sure that an online course offers opportunities to interact with other students online, and also with the instructor.  Always check with students who have already taken the course about how it worked for them.  Find out the positives and negatives they encountered in a particular course and see if it will be the right fit for you!

Research, Reports, and other Resources

  • Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009-10
    This report provides national estimates about distance education courses in public school districts. The estimates presented in this report are based on a district survey about distance education courses offered by the district or by any of the schools in the district during the 2009-10 school year.
  • Keeping Pace with Online K-12 Education
    This is the latest in a series of annual reports that began in 2004 that examine the status of K-12 online education across the country. The report provides an overview of the latest policies, practices, and trends affecting online learning programs across all 50 states.
  • Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010
    The eighth annual survey, a collaborative effort between the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board, is the leading barometer of online learning in the United States. The survey is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and distributed by the Sloan Consortium.
  • Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (2009). A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. Analysts screened these studies to find those that (a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition, (b) measured student learning outcomes, (c) used a rigorous research design, and (d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size.
  • Fast Facts About Online Learning - Released by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning

Organizations and Professional Societies

  • Sloan Consortium
    The Sloan Consortium is an institutional and professional leadership organization dedicated to integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education, helping institutions and individual educators improve the quality, scale, and breadth of online education.
  • International Association for K-12 Online Learning
    A non-profit membership association with over 3,800 members that represent a diverse cross-section of K-12 education from school districts, charter schools, state education agencies, non-profit organizations, research institutions, corporate entities and other content & technology providers. The organization support activities and policies that remove barriers and support effective online education.


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