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Primary and Secondary Distance Education and Online Learning Worldwide: How Much Do We Actually Know?

Michael Barbour originally shared this post in 2012. Arguably, the fact is that we...

Distance education at the primary and secondary or primary and secondary level has a history that is almost as long as distance education within higher education (see Clark’s [2003] chapter on “Virtual and Distance Education in North American Schools” for a fuller history). Primary and secondary online learning is a more recent phenomenon. In the United States the first primary and secondary online learning program was developed by the private school Laurel Springs School’s online program around 1991 (Barbour, 2011a). The creation of the first supplemental virtual school followed in 1994 with the Utah Electronic High School (although the majority of the Electronic High School’s offerings were still delivered in a correspondence model) and the first cyber charter school, Choice 2000 in California (Clark, 2003; Darrow, 2010). The first entirely online supplemental virtual schools were the Virtual High School Global Consortium (now VHS Collaborative) and the Florida Virtual School, both created in 1997 (Friend & Johnston, 2005; Pape, Adams, & Ribeiro, 2005). Three years later Clark (2000) reported there were three existing statewide virtual schools (i.e., Florida, New Mexico, and Utah), and three more in the planning stages (i.e., Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan). The following year Clark (2001) indicated there were at least fourteen states with existing or planned virtual schools. The growth in students participating in primary and secondary online learning has increased in a similar fashion. Clark (2001) estimated that there were approximately 40,000 and 50,000 students – representing less than 0.001% of the primary and secondary student population – enrolled in one or more primary and secondary online learning courses during the 2000-01 school year. Ten years later Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin and Rapp (2011) reported primary and secondary online learning activity in almost all 50 states, while Ambient Insights (2011) indicated that there were now approximately four million students – representing approximately 6% of the primary and secondary student population – enrolled in primary and secondary online learning courses during the 2010-11 school year.

Jurisdictions outside of the United States have seen similar patterns of development and growth. For example, primary and secondary online learning in Canada began in British Columbia with the creation of two supplemental, district-based programs around 1993: the New Directions in Distance Learning (Dallas, 1999) and the EBUS Academy (Winkelmans, Anderson & Barbour, 2010). Within three years, there were additional district-based programs in Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta, and Newfoundland and Labrador (Barker & Wendel, 2001; Barker, Wendall & Richmond, 1999; Haughey & Fenwick, 1996; Stevens, 1997). In the first national examination of primary and secondary online learning in Canada, the Canadian Teachers Federation (2000) estimated there were approximately 25,000 primary and secondary students – representing approximately 0.005% of the primary and secondary student population – enrolled in one of more online course during the 1999-2000 school year. Ten years later, Barbour (2011b) indicated there were approximately 182,096 students – representing approximately 4.2% of the primary and secondary student population – students enrolled in one or more distance education courses1during the 2009-10 school year.

Outside of North America the development of primary and secondary online learning is much more sporadic. In the introduction to their 2006 worldwide survey of departments of education, the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL)2indicated that “research has been done on several virtual schools in North America; however, little information is available about current [primary and secondary] e-learning initiatives across the world” (Powell & Patrick, 2006, ¶ 1). Today, five years later the same statement is still applicable. There have been isolated exceptions. For example, Demiray & Adiyaman (2002) provided a comprehensive history of the open high school program in Turkey, while Powell and Patrick (2006) described that country’s more recent “Online Big Project” initiative that was designed to digitize all of the open high school’s curriculum (although to date that has largely meant converting the correspondence materials into PDF format).

In another example, Barbour (2010) outlined a series of “Master Plans” issued by the Government of South Korea that led to the development and significant usage of the Cyber Home Learning System. A third example is Powell and Barbour (2011), who described the role of the Government of New Zealand and specific visionary documents that have facilitated the creation and growth of the Virtual Learning Network – a regional secondary online learning program that has been developing since 1996. Further, iNACOL recently released a follow-up to their initial worldwide survey that included responses from 50 countries (Barbour, Brown, Hasler Waters, Hoey, Hunt, Kennedy, Ounsworth, Powell & Trimm, 2011) and also in depth case studies on 11 of those countries (Barbour, Hasler Waters & Hunt, 2011). Finally, Barbour and Kennedy (in press) will outline the primary and secondary distance education activity in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Turkey. The fact that I am able to list almost all of these individual projects indicates how accurate Powell and Patrick’s (2006) statement that “little information is available about current [primary and secondary] e-learning initiatives across the world” remains (¶ 1).

Recently, the VISCED – a Transnational Appraisal of Virtual School and College Pr..., a project funded by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture, has undertaken an initiative to create a listing of all K-12 online learning programs.

Whether or not these programs are effective, as well as what we know about best practices in terms of the design of online course content, the delivery of online learning, and the support students require from their local school, is beyond the scope of this specific entry (and may form the basis for a second guest blog entry for Ethos Community at some later date. At this stage, we can safely say that primary and secondary online learning is growing in many jurisdictions – likely many more than those that I have referenced in this entry. This is actually one of the difficulties, the lack of information and knowledge that we have – at least from published literature and research – about primary and secondary distance education, and primary and secondary online learning, from around various countries around the world.


1A significant portion of K-12 distance education in Canada is still delivered using correspondence, instructional televisions and video conferencing delivery models.

2 Now the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

The material for this blog entry was modified from my up-coming chapter, entitled “The Landscape of K-12 Online Learning: Examining What Is Known,” in the third edition of the Handbook of Distance Education, due to be released in 2013.


Ambient Insight. (2011). 2011 Learning technology research taxonomy: Research methodology, buyer segmentation, product definitions, and licensing model. Monroe, WA: Author. Retrieved from

Barbour, M.K. (2010). Perspectives on e-learning: Development and challenges of K-12 online learning. In D. Gibson & B. Dodge (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference(pp. 310-315). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Barbour, M. K. (2011a). The promise and the reality: Exploring virtual schooling in rural jurisdictions. Education in Rural Australia, 21(1), 1-20.

Barbour, M. K. (2011b). State of the nation study: K-12 online learning in Canada. Vienna, VA: International Council for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from

Barbour, M. K., Brown, R., Hasler Waters, L., Hoey, R., Hunt, J., Kennedy, K., Ounsworth, C., Powell, A., & Trimm, T. (2011). Online and blended learning: A survey of policy and practice from K-12 schools around the world. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from

Barbour, M. K., Hasler Waters. L., & Hunt, J. (2011) Online and blended learning: Case studies from K-12 schools around the world. Vienna, VA: International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

Barbour, M. K., & Kennedy, K. (in press). Virtual schooling and K-12 online learning. In A. Hirumi (Ed.), Designing alternative environments to facilitate e-learning: A systematic approach. Washington, DC: International Society for Technology in Education.

Barker, K., & Wendel, T. (2001). e-Learning: Studying Canada's virtual secondary schools. Kelowna, BC: Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education. Retrieved from

Barker, K., Wendel, T., & Richmond, M. (1999). Linking the literature: School effectiveness and virtual schools. Vancouver, BC: FuturEd. Retrieved from

Canadian Teachers Federation. (2000). Facts sheets on contractual issues in distance/online education. Ottawa, ON: Author.

Clark, T. (2000). Virtual high schools: State of the states - A study of virtual high school planning and preparation in the United States: Center for the Application of Information Technologies, Western Illinois University. Retrieved from

Clark, T. (2001). Virtual schools: Trends and issues - A study of virtual schools in the United States. San Francisco, CA: Western Regional Educational Laboratories. Retrieved from

Clark, T. (2003). Virtual and distance education in American schools. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Ed.), Handbook of distance education(pp. 673-699). Mahwah, NJ Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Dallas, J. (1999). Distance education for kindergarten to grade 12: A Canadian perspective. A presentation at the Pan-Commonwealth Forum, Brunei. Retrieved from

Darrow, R. (2010). A comparative study between online charter high schools and traditional high schools in California. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California State University, Fresno, CA. Retrieved from

Demiray, U. & Adiyaman, Z. (2002). A review of the literature on the open high school in Turkey between the years 1992-2002 on its 10th anniversary: A revised and expanded version (3rd ed.). Eskisehir, Turkey: General Directorate of Education Technologies, Ministry of National Education. Retrieved from

Friend, B., & Johnston, S. (2005). Florida Virtual School: A choice for all students. In Z. L. Berge & T. Clark (Eds.), Virtual schools: Planning for success(pp. 97-117). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Haughey, M., & Fenwick, T. (1996). Issues in forming school district consortia to provide distance education: Lessons from Alberta. Journal of Distance Education, 11(1). Retrieved from

Pape, L., Adams, R., & Ribeiro, C. (2005). The Virtual High School: Collaboration and online professional development. In Z. L. Berge & T. Clark (Eds.), Virtual schools: Planning for success(pp. 118-132). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Powell, A., & Barbour, M. K. (2011). An examination of government policies for e-learning in New Zealand’s secondary schools. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning15(1), 75-89. Retrieved from

Powell, A., & Patrick, S. (2006). An international perspective of K–12 online learning: A summary of the 2006 NACOL international e-learning survey. Vienna, VA: North American Council for Online Learning. Retrieved from and

Stevens, K. (1997). The place of telelearning in the development of rural schools in Newfoundland and Labrador Prospects, 4(4). Retrieved from

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., & Rapp, C. (2011). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: An annual review of state-level policy and practice. Evergreen, CO: Evergreen Education Group. Retrieved from

Winkelmans, T., Anderson, B., & Barbour, M. K. (2010). Distributed learning in British Columbia: A journey from correspondence to online delivery. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 14(1), 6-28. Retrieved from

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Comment by Michael Barbour on July 31, 2012 at 13:32

Thanks for the comment Hazel.  It is always good when you can re-purpose your writing to reach a broader audience (and blogging does allow for that material to see the light of day much quicker than traditionally publishing avenues).  The unfortunate thing to date is that, to quote one of my colleagues, there is a paucity of empirical research to guide the practice of primary and secondary or K-12 online learning.

Comment by Hazel Owen on July 31, 2012 at 13:11

Thoroughly enjoyed reading your detailed overview of K12 distance and online opportunities worldwide, Michael - thank you. As you say, there is a dearth of published information around primary and secondary online education, and I would certainly be interested in finding out more about designs and interactions that have been found to engage learners and motivate learning, as well some of the benefits and drawbacks / barriers. So - I'll take you up on the offer you make at the end of your post...maybe as we go into 2013 :-)

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