Research: Defining online schools

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, online schooling has just been around for a little over 10 years.  In addition, researchers and practitioners are still in the process of defining the types of online learning.  This blog post shows the different ways that online learning can be categorized which makes it even more difficult to determine if online learning is effective for students.

Online schools and online charter schools do not fall into neat categories in the same way as traditional schools.  Over the past 10 years, researchers have worked to define the categories or types of online schools.  Clark (2001) identified online school programs by four categories:  state-sanctioned/state led, college or university based, consortium or regionally based, and local education agency based.  Another study identified five categories including: statewide supplemental programs, district-level supplemental programs, single-district cyber schools, multi-district cyber schools, and cyber charters (Watson et al., 2004).  The types of schools were further refined into four categories including: state virtual school, multi-district, single-district, or consortium (Watson et al., 2009).  The components of online schooling are shown in the graphic below.

Online learning is also defined by how much of a course is taught online and generally ranges from fully online to blended to traditional.  Allen, Seaman, &  Garrett (2007) identified this continuum of online courses:

  • TRADITIONAL, 0% online,
    Course with no online technology used – content is delivered in writing or orally.
  • WEB FACILITATED, 1 to 29% online,
    Course which uses web-based technology to facilitate what is essentially a face-to-face course.  Uses a course management system (CMS) or web pages to post the syllabus and assignments, for example.
  • BLENDED/HYBRID, 30 to 79% online,
    Course that blends online and face-to-face delivery.  Substantial proportion of the content is delivered online, typically uses online discussions, and typically has some face-to-face meetings.
  • ONLINE, 80+% online,
    A course where most or all of the content is delivered online.  Typically have no face-to-face meetings.

Watson (2008) provided this continuum regarding online learning:


  • Fully online curriculum with all learning done online and at a distance and no face-to-face component
  • Fully online curriculum with options for face-to-face instruction, but not required
  • Mostly or fully online curriculum with select days required in classroom or computer lab
  • Mostly or fully online curriculum in computer lab or classroom where students meet every day
  • Classroom instruction with significant, required online components that extend learning beyond the classroom and beyond the school day
  • Classroom instruction integrating online resources, but limited or no requirements for students to be online
  • Traditional face-to-face setting with few or no online resources or communication


Watson (2010) also produced this chart to show the components of blended learning:


3 Responses to “Research: Defining online schools”

  1. 1 Don Brown, D.Ed. May 11, 2011 at 8:25 am

    What is still unclear to me is what happens when there is a fully online course with an online teacher, but paired with a highly-trained Mentor in the computer lab at a bricks and mortar school….your thoughts?

  1. 1 Research: Online Learning, part 1 « California Dreamin' by Rob Darrow Trackback on May 12, 2011 at 5:44 am
  2. 2 Online learning: counting students « California Dreamin' by Rob Darrow Trackback on May 17, 2011 at 6:03 am

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