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Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2002-03
NCES: 2005010
March 2005

Selected Findings

The findings in this report are organized as follows:

  • distance education courses for public school students;
  • technologies used for delivering distance education courses;
  • entities delivering distance education courses;
  • reasons for having distance education courses; and
  • future expansion of distance education courses.

Distance Education Courses for Public School Students

The survey asked whether there were any public elementary or secondary school students in the district enrolled in distance education courses in 200203 (12-month school year). Districts with students enrolled in distance education courses were asked to indicate the number of schools with at least one student enrolled in distance education courses and the number of enrollments in distance education courses of students regularly enrolled in the district.

Prevalence of Distance Education Courses in Public School Districts

  • During the 200203 12-month school year, about one-third of public school districts (36 percent) had students in the district enrolled in distance education courses (table 1). This represents an estimated 5,500 out of a total of 15,040 public school districts.
  • A greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts had students enrolled in distance education courses (50 vs. 32 and 37 percent, respectively) (table 1). In addition, a greater proportion of districts located in rural areas than in suburban or urban areas indicated that they had students enrolled in distance education courses (46 compared with 28 and 23 percent, respectively).
  • A greater proportion of districts located in the Southeast and Central regions had students enrolled in distance education courses than did districts in the Northeast and West (45 and 46 percent compared with 21 and 32 percent) (table 1). The proportion of districts with students enrolled in distance education courses was lower in the Northeast than in other regions (21 vs. 32 to 46 percent).
  • A smaller proportion of districts with the lowest poverty concentration had students enrolled in distance education courses than did districts with higher concentrations of poverty (33 compared with 42 percent for both districts with medium or high poverty concentration) (table 1).

Prevalence of Distance Education Courses in Public Schools

  • An estimated 8,200 public schools had students enrolled in distance education courses during the 200203 12-month school year (table 2). This represents approximately 9 percent of all public schools nationwide (table 3).
  • Although a greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts had students enrolled in distance education courses (table 1), a greater proportion of schools in small districts had students enrolled in distance education courses than did schools in medium or large districts (15 vs. 6 percent for both medium and large districts) (table 3). In other words, when small districts do offer distance education, they are more likely to involve a greater proportion of their schools.
  • A higher proportion of schools in rural districts than schools in either suburban or urban districts had students enrolled in distance education courses (15 compared to 7 and 5 percent, respectively) (table 3). In addition, a greater proportion of schools in the Central region had students enrolled in distance education courses than did schools in the Northeast (12 vs. 5 percent, respectively).
  • The percentage of schools with students enrolled in distance education courses varied substantially by the instructional level of the school. Overall, 38 percent of public high schools offered distance education courses, compared with 20 percent of combined or ungraded schools,2 4 percent of middle or junior high schools, and fewer than 1 percent of elementary schools (table 3).
  • Among all public schools with students enrolled in distance education, 76 percent were high schools, 15 percent were combined or ungraded schools, 7 percent were middle or junior high schools, and 2 percent were elementary schools (table 4 and figure 1).

Distance Education Enrollments by Instructional Level

  • In 200203, there were an estimated 328,000 enrollments in distance education courses among students regularly enrolled in public school districts3 (table 5). If a student was enrolled in multiple courses, districts were instructed to count the student for each course in which he or she was enrolled. Thus, enrollments may include duplicated counts of students.
  • Of the total enrollments in distance education courses, 68 percent were in high schools, 29 percent were in combined or ungraded schools, 2 percent were in middle or junior high schools, and 1 percent4 were in elementary schools (table 6 and figure 2).

Distance Education Enrollments by Curriculum Area

  • Distance education enrollments in various curricular areas ranged from an estimated 8,200 in general elementary school curriculum and 11,700 in computer science to 74,600 in social studies/social sciences (table 7).
  • About one-quarter (23 percent) of all enrollments in distance education courses of students regularly enrolled in the districts were in social studies/social sciences, 19 percent were in English/language arts, 15 percent were in mathematics, 12 percent were in natural/physical science, 12 percent were in foreign languages, and 14 percent were in other unspecified curriculum areas (table 8). Enrollments in general elementary school curriculum and computer science accounted for the smallest proportions of distance education enrollments (3 and 4 percent, respectively).
  • The proportion of students enrolled in foreign language distance education courses was greater for small districts compared to medium or large districts (19 vs. 11 and 6 percent, respectively) (table 8). Furthermore, the proportion of students enrolled in foreign language distance education courses was greater for rural districts than for suburban or urban districts (22 vs. 10 and 5 percent, respectively).

Advanced Placement or College-Level Courses Offered Through Distance Education

  • Fifty percent of the districts with students enrolled in distance education courses had students enrolled in Advanced Placement or college-level courses offered through distance education in 200203 (table 9). This represents an estimated 2,700 districts.
  • There were an estimated 45,300 enrollments in Advanced Placement or college-level courses offered through distance education in 200203 (table 10). This represents 14 percent of the total enrollments in distance education.
  • The proportion of all distance education enrollments that are in Advanced Placement or college-level distance education courses is greater in small districts compared to medium or large districts (24 vs. 10 and 7 percent, respectively) (table 10).
  • The proportion of all distance education enrollments that are in Advanced Placement or college-level distance education courses is greater in rural districts compared to urban or suburban districts (27 vs. 4 and 11 percent, respectively) (table 10). Additionally, suburban districts had a higher proportion (11 percent) of all distance education enrollments in Advanced Placement or college-level distance education courses than urban districts (4 percent).



Technologies Used for Delivering Distance Education Courses

Districts that reported offering distance education courses were asked about the types of technologies used as primary modes of instructional delivery for any distance education courses in which students in the district were enrolled. The technologies included Internet courses using synchronous (i.e., simultaneous or "real-time") computer-based instruction, Internet courses using asynchronous (i.e., not simultaneous) computer-based instruction, two-way interactive video, one-way prerecorded video, and other technologies. Districts were also asked about online distance education courses, including where students were accessing distance education courses, and whether the district provided or paid for specific services (i.e., computer, Internet service provider, other) for students accessing online distance education courses from home.

Technologies Used as Primary Modes of Instructional Delivery

  • More districts reported two-way interactive video (55 percent) or Internet courses using asynchronous computer-based instruction (47 percent) than Internet courses using synchronous computer-based instruction (21 percent), one-way prerecorded video (16 percent), or some other technology (4 percent) as a primary mode of delivery (table 11).5
  • In small districts, two-way interactive video was the technology most often cited as a primary instructional delivery mode for distance education courses (60 percent vs. 5 to 42 percent for all remaining technologies) (table 11). However, in both medium and large districts, Internet courses using asynchronous computer-based instruction was the technology most often cited as a primary delivery mode (60 percent vs. 3 to 44 percent for all remaining technologies in medium districts; 72 percent vs. 6 to 33 percent for all remaining technologies in large districts).
  • In both urban and suburban districts, Internet courses using asynchronous computerbased instruction was the technology cited most often as a primary instructional delivery mode for distance education courses (69 percent vs. 3 to 38 percent for all remaining technologies in urban districts; 58 percent vs. 4 to 39 percent for all remaining technologies in suburban districts) (table 11). However, in rural districts, two-way interactive video was the technology cited most often as a primary delivery mode (64 vs. 5 to 40 percent for all remaining technologies).
  • When asked which technology was used to deliver the greatest number of distance education courses, 49 percent of districts selected two-way interactive video, more than any other technology (table 12). Thirty-five percent of districts selected Internet courses using asynchronous computer-based instruction, 9 percent selected Internet courses using synchronous computer-based instruction, 7 percent selected one-way prerecorded video, and 1 percent selected other technologies (table 12 and figure 3).

Online Distance Education Courses

  • Fifty-nine percent of districts with students enrolled in distance education courses had students enrolled in online distance education courses (i.e., courses delivered over the Internet) in 200203 (table 13).
  • A greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts had students enrolled in online distance education courses (80 vs. 71 and 53 percent, respectively) (table 13). Medium districts also had a greater proportion of students enrolled in online distance education courses than small districts (71 vs. 53 percent, respectively). In addition, a smaller proportion of rural districts than suburban or urban districts had students enrolled in online distance education courses (51 vs. 71 and 74 percent, respectively).
  • Of those districts with students enrolled in online distance education courses, 92 percent had students accessing online courses from school, 60 percent had students accessing online courses from home, and 8 percent had students accessing online courses from some other location6 (table 13).
  • A greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts had students accessing online distance education courses from home (77 vs. 66 and 55 percent, respectively) (table 13). Furthermore, a greater proportion of medium-size districts than small districts had students accessing online distance education courses from home (66 vs. 55 percent). In addition, the proportion of rural districts with students accessing online distance education courses from home was less than the proportion of suburban and urban districts with students accessing online courses from home (53 vs. 67 and 78 percent, respectively). No differences were detected in online access from home by poverty concentration.
  • Among districts with students accessing online distance education courses from home, 24 percent provided or paid for a computer for all students and 8 percent did so for some students (table 14). Additionally, 27 percent provided or paid for the Internet service provider for all students and 7 percent did so for some students. Finally, 6 percent provided or paid for some other item (e.g., software programs, phone service for dial-up Internet service) for all students and 2 percent did so for some students.
  • A greater proportion of small districts than medium or large districts provided or paid for computers for all students (29 vs. 17 and 11 percent, respectively) (table 14). Similarly, a greater proportion of small districts than medium or large districts provided or paid for an Internet service provider for all students (32 vs. 20 and 15 percent, respectively). In addition, the proportion of rural districts that provided or paid for computers for all students was greater than the proportion of suburban or urban districts that provided or paid for computers for all students (33 vs. 16 and 9 percent, respectively).

Entities Delivering Distance Education Courses

Districts that reported offering distance education courses were asked which entities delivered distance education courses to students regularly enrolled in their district. Entities included

  • a cyber (i.e., online) charter school in the district;
  • other schools in the district;
  • their district (i.e., delivered centrally from the district);
  • another local school district, or schools in another district, in their state;
  • education service agencies within their state (e.g., Board of Cooperative Educational Services [BOCES], Council on Occupational Education [COE], Intermediate Units [IU]), not including the state education agency or local school districts;
  • a state virtual school in their state (i.e., state-centralized K-12 courses available through Internet- or web-based methods);
  • a state virtual school in another state;
  • districts or schools in other states (other than state virtual schools);
  • a postsecondary institution;
  • an independent vendor; and
  • other entities.

Districts were also asked whether they delivered distance education courses to students who were not regularly enrolled in their district (e.g., to students from other districts, private school students, or homeschooled students).

Entities Delivering Courses

  • Of those districts with students enrolled in distance education courses in 200203, about half (48 percent) had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by a postsecondary institution (table 15). Thirty-four percent of districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by another local school district, or schools in other districts, within their state. Eighteen percent of districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by education service agencies within their state, 18 percent by a state virtual school within their state, and 18 percent by an independent vendor. Sixteen percent of districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered centrally from their own district. Eight percent of districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by other schools in the district (other than cyber charter schools). The proportion of school districts delivering distance education courses through various other entities ranged from 3 to 4 percent.
  • A greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by other schools in the district (28 vs. 15 and 5 percent, respectively) (table 16). Medium districts also had a greater proportion of students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by other schools in the district than small districts (15 vs. 5 percent). Additionally, a greater proportion of urban districts than either suburban or rural districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by other schools in the district (25 vs. 9 and 6 percent, respectively).
  • A greater proportion of small districts than medium or large districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by another local school district, or schools in other districts, within their state (39 percent vs. 25 and 13 percent, respectively) (table 16). Furthermore, a greater proportion of medium-size districts than large districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by another local school district, or schools in other districts, within their state (25 vs. 13 percent). Additionally, there were more rural districts than either suburban or urban districts that had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by another local school district, or schools in other districts, within their state (40 percent vs. 25 and 20 percent, respectively).
  • A smaller proportion of small districts than medium or large districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by a state virtual school in their state (15 vs. 27 percent each, respectively) (table 16). Additionally, a greater proportion of districts in the Southeast than in other regions had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by a state virtual school in their state (43 vs. 6 to 17 percent).
  • A greater proportion of small districts than medium or large districts had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by postsecondary institutions (54 vs. 30 and 33 percent, respectively) (table 16). In addition, there was a smaller proportion of urban districts than suburban or rural districts that had students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by postsecondary institutions (22 vs. 44 and 53 percent, respectively).
  • There was a greater proportion of large districts than small districts with students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by independent vendors (28 vs. 16 percent, respectively) (table 16). Compared to rural districts, both urban and suburban districts had greater proportions of students enrolled in distance education courses delivered by independent vendors (15 vs. 29 and 23 percent, respectively).

Delivery of Courses to Students Not Regularly Enrolled in the District

  • During the 200203 12-month school year, about one-fifth (21 percent) of districts that offered distance education delivered courses to students who were not regularly enrolled in the district (e.g., to students from other districts, private school students, or homeschooled students) (table 17).
  • A smaller proportion of districts in the Southeast than in the Northeast or Central regions delivered distance education courses to students not regularly enrolled in the district (13 vs. 29 and 22 percent, respectively) (table 17).

Reasons for Having Distance Education Courses

Districts who reported offering distance education courses were asked how important various reasons were for having distance education courses in the district in 200203. Reasons included offering courses not otherwise available at the school, offering Advanced Placement or college-level courses, addressing growing populations and limited space, reducing scheduling conflicts for students, permitting students who failed a course to take it again, meeting the needs of specific groups of students, and generating more district revenues.7

  • The reason most frequently cited as very important for having distance education courses in the district was offering courses not otherwise available at the school (80 percent) (table 18). Other reasons frequently cited as very important were meeting the needs of specific groups of students (59 percent) and offering Advanced Placement or college-level courses (50 percent). Reducing scheduling conflicts for students was mentioned as very important by 23 percent of districts. The remaining reasons were listed as very important by 4 to 17 percent of districts.
  • Generating more district revenues as well as addressing growing populations and limited space were rated as not important more often than other reasons for having distance education courses (77 and 72 percent, respectively, vs. 9 to 64 percent) (table 18).
  • A greater proportion of small districts than medium or large districts rated offering courses not otherwise available at the school as a somewhat or very important reason for having distance education (93 vs. 86 and 82 percent, respectively) (table 19). In addition, a greater proportion of rural districts than urban or suburban districts considered this to be a somewhat or very important reason for offering distance education courses (95 vs. 79 and 86 percent, respectively).
  • A greater proportion of high-poverty districts than medium- or low-poverty districts rated meeting the needs of specific groups of students as a somewhat or very important reason for having distance education (88 vs. 79 and 80 percent, respectively) (table 19).
  • A greater proportion of small districts than medium or large districts rated offering Advanced Placement or college-level courses as a somewhat or very important reason for having distance education (74 vs. 54 and 59 percent, respectively) (table 19). In addition, a greater proportion of rural districts than urban or suburban districts cited this as a somewhat or very important reason for having distance education (76 vs. 49 and 59 percent, respectively).
  • A greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts cited reducing scheduling conflicts for students as a somewhat or very important reason for having distance education (70 vs. 52 and 56 percent, respectively) (table 19).
  • A greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts reported permitting students who failed a course to take it again as a somewhat or very important reason for having distance education (50 vs. 34 and 30 percent, respectively) (table 19). In addition, a greater proportion of urban districts than suburban or rural districts cited this reason as somewhat or very important for having distance education (47 vs. 33 and 31 percent, respectively) (table 19).
  • A greater proportion of large districts than medium or small districts rated addressing growing populations and limited space as a somewhat or very important reason for having distance education (44 vs. 33 and 21 percent, respectively) (table 19). Furthermore, a smaller proportion of small districts than medium districts rated this as a somewhat or very important reason for having distance education (21 vs. 33 percent, respectively).
  • A greater proportion of high-poverty districts than low-poverty districts cited generating more district revenues as a somewhat or very important reason for having distance education (21 vs. 11 percent, respectively) (table 19).

Future Expansion of Distance Education Courses

Districts that reported offering distance education courses were asked whether they planned to expand their distance education courses in the future. Those districts that planned to expand were asked about the extent to which various factors, if any, might be keeping them from expanding distance education courses. The factors included course development and/or purchasing costs; limited technological infrastructure to support distance education; concerns about course quality; restrictive federal, state, or local laws or policies; concerns about receiving funding based on student attendance for distance education courses; or some other reason.

  • Seventy-two percent of districts with students enrolled in distance education courses planned to expand their distance education courses in the future (table 20). No differences were detected by district characteristics in plans to expand distance education courses.
  • Costs were cited as a major factor more often than any other factor as preventing districts from expanding their distance education courses (table 21). Thirty-six percent of districts that were planning to expand their distance education courses selected course development and/or purchasing costs as a major factor preventing their expansion (table 21).
  • Fifty-four percent of districts that were planning to expand their distance education courses said restrictive federal, state, or local laws or policies were not a factor preventing them from expanding (table 21). In addition, districts said the following were not factors preventing them from expanding distance education courses: limited technological infrastructure to support distance education (41 percent), concerns about receiving funding for distance education courses based on student attendance (40 percent), and concerns about course quality (30 percent).
  • Among public school districts with plans to expand their distance education courses, approximately two-thirds (68 percent) said course development and/or purchasing costs were a moderate or major factor keeping the district from expanding distance education courses, followed by concerns about course quality (37 percent); concerns about receiving funding for distance education courses based on attendance (36 percent); limited infrastructure to support distance education (33 percent); restrictive federal, state, or local laws or policies (17 percent); and some other reason (10 percent) (table 22 and figure 4).
  • A greater proportion of urban districts than rural districts cited restrictive federal, state, or local laws or policies as a major or moderate factor preventing expansion of distance education courses (30 vs. 15 percent, respectively) (table 22). Additionally, a greater proportion of urban districts than suburban or rural districts cited receiving funding based on attendance for distance education courses as a major or moderate factor preventing them from expanding (54 vs. 38 and 34 percent, respectively).
  • A smaller proportion of districts in the Northeast than in other regions cited receiving funding based on attendance for distance education courses as a major or moderate factor preventing expansion (20 vs. 36 to 43 percent) (table 22).


2Combined or ungraded schools are those in which the grades offered in the school span both elementary and secondary grades or that are not divided into grade levels.

3To put this number into context, NCES reported 47,222,778 students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in fall 2000. It is important to note that distance education enrollments collected in the FRSS survey may include duplicated counts of students (i.e., the number of students enrolled in distance education courses could be smaller than the estimated 328,000 enrollments in distance education courses), while the NCES estimate of 47,222,778 students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools is an unduplicated count (Snyder and Hoffman 2003, p. 51).

4Interpret data with caution. The coefficient of variation for elementary schools is greater than 50 percent.

5Percentages sum to more than 100 because some districts used different types of technology as primary modes of instructional delivery for different distance education courses.

6Percentages sum to more than 100 because students in districts could access online courses from more than one location.

7Although respondents were able to specify some other reason for having distance education, the only available options for this response were somewhat important and very important (see Appendix B). Therefore, these "other" responses are not discussed further.

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