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


Nontraditional methods of instructional delivery at the postsecondary level, such as technology-based distance education course offerings, have been a topic of considerable attention and debate. Research on this topic suggests that distance education course offerings and enrollments have proliferated at postsecondary education institutions within recent years (Lewis, Alexander, and Farris 1997; Lewis et al. 1999; Waits and Lewis 2003). There is also some anecdotal evidence that technology-based education at the elementary and secondary levels enables school districts to expand the range of courses available to their students and may facilitate more flexibility in student schedules and instructional delivery (Wildavsky 2001; Doherty 2002; Kennedy-Manzo 2002; Trotter 2002). To date, however, no nationally representative study has examined technology-based distance education availability, course offerings, and enrollments in the nation's elementary and secondary schools. To address this gap, the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education requested the "Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students" survey to collect and analyze nationally representative data on technology-based distance education in public elementary and secondary school districts. It provides baseline data, gathered for the 200203 12-month school year, on the prevalence of technology-based distance education courses across the nation, as well as estimated enrollments of public elementary and secondary school students in these distance education courses. It also identifies the types of technologies most commonly used for delivering distance education courses. The survey also provides information on districts' reasons for having distance education courses and factors districts report that prevent their expansion of distance education course offerings.

The survey was mailed to public school district superintendents, who were asked to review the questionnaire and determine the person in the district who was best suited to complete it. Suggested respondents were the director of curriculum, the technology coordinator, or the distance education coordinator. Respondents were provided with a definition and description of distance education courses. For this study, distance education courses were defined as credit-granting courses offered to elementary and secondary school students enrolled in the district in which the teacher and students were in different locations. Distance education courses could originate from the respondent's district or from other entities, such as a state virtual school or postsecondary institution. These courses could be delivered via audio, video (live or prerecorded), or Internet or other computer technologies. Additionally, the distance education courses could include occasional face-to-face interactions between the teacher and the students. Districts were also instructed to include information about distance education Advanced Placement or college-level courses in which students in their district were enrolled. For purposes of this survey, respondents were instructed to exclude information about supplemental course materials, virtual field trips, online homework, staff professional development, or courses conducted mainly via written correspondence.

The survey asked whether there were any public elementary or secondary school students in the district enrolled in distance education courses. Respondents were instructed to report only about distance education enrollments of students regularly enrolled in the district and to include all distance education courses in which students in the district were enrolled, regardless of where the courses originated. If the respondents indicated that there were public elementary or secondary school students in the district enrolled in distance education courses, they were asked to report the number of schools in their district with students enrolled in distance education courses by instructional level of the school. Respondents were also asked to report the number of distance education course enrollments in schools in their district by instructional level of the school and curriculum area. Other survey items asked which technologies were used as primary modes of instructional delivery for distance education courses, which entities delivered distance education courses, whether any students accessed online distance education courses (and if so, from which locations), and the district's reasons for having distance education courses. Finally, respondents were asked whether their district had any plans to expand their distance education courses, and if so, which factors, if any, might be keeping them from expanding those courses.

This survey was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) using the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS). FRSS is designed to administer short, focused, issue-oriented surveys that place minimal burden on respondents and have a quick turnaround from data collection to reporting. Questionnaires for the survey were mailed in fall 2003 to a representative sample of 2,305 public school districts in the 50 states and District of Columbia. The sample was selected from the 200102 NCES Common Core of Data (CCD) "Local Education Agency Universe Survey" file, which was the most current file available at the time of selection. Data have been weighted to yield national estimates. The sampling frame includes 15,218 public school districts-14,229 regular public school districts and 989 "other education agencies" with at least 1 charter school (see appendix A for a more detailed discussion of the sample and sampling frame). The number of districts in the survey universe decreased to an estimated 15,040 because some of the districts were determined to be ineligible for the FRSS survey during data collection. The unweighted response rate was 94 percent and the weighted response rate was 96 percent. Detailed information about the survey methodology is provided in appendix A, and the questionnaire can be found in Appendix B.

The primary focus of this report is to present national estimates. In addition, selected survey findings are presented by the following district characteristics, which are defined in more detail in appendix A:

  • district enrollment size (less than 2,500, 2,500 to 9,999, 10,000 or more-referred to as small, medium, and large, respectively);
  • metropolitan status (urban, suburban, rural);
  • region (Northeast, Southeast, Central, West); and
  • poverty concentration (less than 10 percent, 10 to 19 percent, 20 percent or more- referred to as low, medium, and high, respectively).

In general, comparisons by these district characteristics are presented only where significant differences were detected and followed meaningful patterns. It is important to note that many of the district characteristics used for independent analysis may also be related to each other. For example, district enrollment size and metropolitan status are related, with urban districts typically being larger than rural districts. Other relationships between these analysis variables may exist. However, this E.D. TAB report focuses on the bivariate relationships between district characteristics and the data gathered in the survey, rather than more complex analyses, to provide descriptive information about technology-based distance education.1

All specific statements of comparison made in this report have been tested for statistical significance through t-tests and are significant at the 95 percent confidence level or better. However, only selected findings are presented for each topic in the report. Throughout this report, differences that may appear large (particularly those by district characteristics) may not be statistically significant. This may be due to relatively large standard errors surrounding the estimates, particularly among subgroups. A detailed description of the statistical tests supporting the survey findings can be found in appendix A.

1E.D. TAB reports focus on the presentation of selected descriptive data in tabular format.