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Leveraging Virtual and Hybrid Learning to Increase Course Access: Guidance for State Leaders

Michael Ham profile photo

Michael Ham

The Learning Accelerator

The Learning Accelerator (TLA) recently partnered with the Walton Family Foundation to better understand how to support state education agencies (SEAs) with the development, implementation, and strengthening of virtual and hybrid learning policies as part of a learner-centered educational approach. TLA interviewed leaders from eight state education agencies across the country, representing a diverse set of stakeholders, geographies, policy conditions, and political contexts. We also interviewed a handful of local education agencies (LEAs) to deepen our research on the impacts of states’ policies, guidance, and support. From these conversations, several critical challenges and key themes arose.

This guidance document is the first in a multi-part series that addresses a few of the most pressing issues that state leaders raised about virtual and hybrid learning. This guidance provides actionable information for state leaders regardless of where they are in the processes of developing or improving virtual and hybrid course access programs and includes the following:

  • Design considerations for virtual or hybrid course access programs;

  • Examples of how states are organizing and supporting virtual or hybrid course access; and

  • Resources and potential solutions for challenges related to virtual or hybrid course access programs.

“Funded by a five-year grant from the US Department of Education and through a partnership with VHS Learning, MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s STEM AP Access Expansion Opportunity Program provides free online STEM AP courses to schools in which low numbers of students engage in STEM AP courses. Accessing these virtual AP courses could be a real game-changer for students who participate.”

Alison Bagg, Director, Office of Charter Schools, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Traditional K-12 schooling models insist that students and teachers need to be physically present in the same space — at the same time — to teach and learn. However, these models limit students' educational opportunities to those offered by local schools or their ability to access and travel to other schools that may better suit their needs (where, again, these schools’ course offerings limit students’ options). As we emerge into a new era of K-12 schooling characterized by unprecedented access to broadband and student-facing devices, SEA leaders are re-evaluating the relationship between location and course access.

Over the past several months, TLA has engaged in conversations with SEA leaders who consistently point to expanding course access as a challenge. Several states with varying geographies pointed to rural students' relatively limited choices compared to their urban counterparts. Other states highlighted limited opportunities to learn world languages due to teacher pipeline issues. Regardless of the context or the causes that have resulted in limited course options, many states are finding that virtual and hybrid learning can remove barriers and connect students to coursework that’s relevant, interesting, and aligned to their long-term aspirations.

This guidance highlights a number of the considerations that states are making about their course access programs, demonstrates models states have developed based on these considerations, and provides resources to help states address critical challenges to developing and strengthening virtual and hybrid course access programs.

What I think is going to be even more exciting are the opportunities for our rural districts to offer AP or dual credit or other complex coursework that they don't have the staff to offer — either because they don't have anybody that has the credentials to teach it or they don't have enough students who want to take a course to justify allocating a teacher.”

Jason Glass, Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Education

1. Course Access Model Design Considerations

It is important to note that many factors (e.g., the language of SEA authorizing legislation, state and local politics, legislative oversight mechanisms, etc.) impact SEAs’ ability to develop and enact virtual course access policy and to support the kinds of programs for which this policy provides. However, the Education Commission of the States’ “Policymaker’s Guide for Virtual Schools,” points to four key policy levers that SEA leaders often have at their disposal when considering the organization and governance of virtual schools. While this guide offers these policy levers specifically concerning virtual schools, they are broadly applicable to virtual and hybrid learning programs, including those designed to expand students’ access to courses.

Policy Levers

Authorization & ApprovalSetting and adopting approval standards for schools, programs, or individual virtual or hybrid courses
Student Attendance & EngagementEstablishing definitions and progress monitoring systems to track student participation in virtual or hybrid learning environments
Teachers & InstructionDetermining requirements for those who are teaching virtual and hybrid courses (e.g., licensure and certification, required professional development, etc.) and the instructional materials used for these courses
FundingDetermining how per-pupil allocations or other funding streams are distributed to, shared among, and used within the entities that are authorized to offer virtual and hybrid programs

SEAs weigh the above policy levers and produce a variety of common course access models. For example, states willing to dedicate and develop the capacity to be directly involved may choose to launch and maintain state-run virtual and hybrid schools and programs. Others — who cannot run such a program or value local control — may opt to establish guardrails and leave it to local education agencies to demonstrate that locally overseen single- or multi-district virtual or hybrid programs meet these standards.

Common Virtual and Hybrid Learning Program Designs

Virtual Charter SchoolsSEAs authorize virtual charter schools that are made available to all students across the state through school choice programs
Operated by Single LEAsSEAs delegate program design and oversight to individual LEAs who work to create additional course offerings for students within their own LEA
Operated by Collaboratives of Multiple LEAsSEAs delegate design and oversight to collaboratives of LEAs who work together to create course offerings and cross-enroll students as needed
Operated by SEAsStates design and oversee state-wide programs that are made available to all students within their state

While these distinctions help classify course access programs based on their governance and the students to whom they are available, state leaders should not feel limited to exploring one option at a time. In practice, many states are simultaneously pursuing opportunities across several of these programs and providing students with several options that expand their course offerings.

“RIDE (Rhode Island Department of Education) is working to ensure all students have access to free, high-quality extended learning opportunities in the wake of the pandemic. RIDE’s All Course Network platform offers wide-ranging programs, including Career and Technical Education and dual and concurrent enrollment opportunities. The network enables virtual collaboration between districts, meaning students can enroll in courses not typically offered in their school. Through a combination of live and asynchronous work, we are expanding access to innovative courses and building a more equitable education system." – Lisa Odom-Villell, Deputy Commissioner for Instructional Program, Rhode Island Department of Education

2. Examples of State Approaches to Course Access

As part of a nationwide virtual policy scan, TLA surfaced examples of how states have organized around course access as well as how they orient toward the above considerations. Below, we outline four of these states: Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. In addition to the information we gathered, the section below is supplemented with information from the Digital Learning Collaborative’s 2019 report, “Course Choice: A Review of Policy and Practice.”


Florida offers students the ability to enroll in virtual courses through several options, including its state-wide virtual school, Florida Virtual School (FLVS), and district-, and consortia-run virtual programs. Legislation in the early 2000s provided the opportunity for all students in the state to enroll in FLVS courses, either in addition to or as part of their full-time schedules. In 2011, the state added a graduation requirement that all students complete at least one virtual course. The state maintains an online course catalog that includes options from many of the providers authorized within the state and has developed a funding structure in which virtual providers are paid based on successful student completion of courses. In the 2017-18 school year alone, Florida students enrolled in 600,000+ supplemental courses across the many virtual options provided.

North Carolina

North Carolina has engaged in virtual and hybrid efforts to expand course access for decades. Since its creation in 2007, the state’s supplemental online course access program, North Carolina Virtual (NC Virtual), has developed a centralized catalog of 135 virtual course offerings for students across the state. NC Virtual offers advanced courses, courses in the arts, career and technical education (CTE), electives, and world languages and also connects students with special education accommodations to highly qualified teachers through courses aligned to the state's occupational course of study. Their courses are developed and taught by North Carolina licensed teachers. Students are not able to enroll in NC Virtual full time, as it is meant to supplement course offerings for partnerships with other models, including local schools and homeschools.


The Texas Virtual School Network (TXVSN) is the state’s centralized hub for course choice options. Texas allows eligible school districts, open-enrollment charter schools, regional education service centers, non-profits, private entities, and higher education institutions that meet eligibility requirements to provide virtual options. Further, the state limits the number of courses a student can enroll in at no cost to three courses per semester and will not cover the costs of student enrollment if their district or school offers a substantially similar course. Similar to Florida, Texas funds virtual courses based on successful course completion. Importantly, Texas is currently undergoing a revision of the legislation that authorizes virtual course access programs, as Senate Bill 15 expires in September of 2023. The Texas Commission on Virtual Education Report highlights recommendations for future legislation.


Wisconsin’s course access program is a unique blend of two policy structures, one that establishes virtual schools and one that provides for part-time open enrollment across multiple districts or providers, known as Course Options. The Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative consists of two collaborating organizations: the Wisconsin Virtual School and the Wisconsin eSchool Network. They partner with the state's Department of Public Instruction to provide a single point for school districts to access online courses, professional learning, research, best practices, and administrative planning support. Under the Course Options program, students can take up to two courses from providers other than their resident school district at any time, including virtual courses from the above providers or those provided by other authorized entities. Because of this unique structure, funding varies based on the kinds of courses students are accessing and the provider of those courses.

3. Common Challenges & Solutions to Equitable Course Access

State leaders that TLA engaged in this work pointed to a number of consistent challenges that they continue to face in the development and strengthening of their virtual course access programs. Below, we outline two of the most commonly voiced challenges alongside several promising research-based solutions that thought leaders in the virtual and hybrid learning and course access spaces elevated.

Challenge: Data & Funding Models

Many policies designed for traditional K-12 education programs often translate poorly to virtual and hybrid programs. Two areas that state leaders pointed to where this is particularly true were student data on attendance and engagement and funding allocations. Many of these policies have revolved around seat time or other measures based on in-person schooling that must be redesigned to allow for virtual course access to succeed.

Solution: Rethink Attendance, Participation, and Engagement Data Measurement Tracking Systems

The National Forum on Education Statistics 2021 report, “Forum Guide to Attendance, Participation, and Engagement Data in Virtual and Hybrid Learning Models,” explores several innovative models and approaches to tracking and reporting attendance and engagement. For example, rather than taking a seat-time-based approach to measuring attendance, states may move to develop standards-, mastery-, or competency-based metrics for virtual courses that provide students credit for successful demonstration of subject or concept mastery. Additionally, states may consider developing more comprehensive coding structures to accurately capture virtual attendance and engagement beyond more limited coding structures designed to capture in-person attendance data.

Solution: Adopt Course-Level Funding Models that Incentivize Results

The Aurora Institute argues in their report, “Course Access: Equitable Opportunities for College and Career Ready Students,” that funding models must move away from seat-time-based models and instead focus on student performance at the course level. The report urges that states must move to establish flexible, sustainable, performance-based funding models for course access programs and points to FLVS’ course completion-based funding model as an example of a weighted, portable, and flexible funding model designed to motivate improved student outcomes.

Solution: Remove Funding Obstacles and Responsibilities at the Local Level

LEAs often face additional costs associated with enrolling students in virtual course access programs (e.g., enrollment fees, costs related to staffing adults to support students in-person, and device maintenance), and ExcelInEd argues that these costs can disincentivize LEAs from fully embracing course access programs for their students. In their 2018 report, “Course Access Opportunity Incentive,” ExcelInEd calls for adjustments to state-funding models that may remove these barriers.

Challenge: Teacher Pipelines, Licensure, and Obsolete Staffing Models

State leaders also expressed challenges related to ensuring students have access to high-quality certified teachers regardless of whether they are taking their course in person or through a virtual course access program. This is of particular interest at this moment as schools and districts across the country face increasing difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers.

Solution: Open Pipelines by Removing Barriers to Reciprocity

Virtual course access programs remove geographic barriers that impact staffing shortages, but the Christensen Institute argues that limiting the expansion of teacher pipelines to current state-certified teachers may not be enough. In their report “Tackle Teacher Shortage with Online Learning,” they point to several strategies to address pipeline issues, including removing barriers to inter-state teacher licensure reciprocity processes.

Solution: Leverage Innovative Staffing Models

In their 2018 report, “Innovative Staffing to Personalize Learning: How New Teaching Roles and Blended Learning Help Students Succeed,” the Christensen Institute also explores specific strategies and opportunities to change the ways that schools, districts, and states think about staffing. While these strategies have been articulated around creative staffing models within schools, they can be extended to apply to the district-, collaborative-, or even state-wide virtual course access programs. For example, virtual course access programs could enable districts to dedicate master teachers to teaching content while utilizing developing or novice teachers to provide differentiated support to students in person.

Taking the Work Forward

Inequitable course access has long plagued our nation’s K-12 education system. Many states are capitalizing on investments into technology and infrastructure from COVID-19 relief funds to develop and strengthen virtual and hybrid learning programs to greatly expand course access, but SEAs are encountering and overcoming many challenges along the way.

Developing responsive systems that position students to make empowered choices about the courses they take requires SEA leaders to consider where these programs live within their state’s policy infrastructure and to ultimately adopt policy solutions that remove barriers that prevent LEAs and students from accessing virtually expanded course offerings. By leveraging virtual and hybrid capabilities, states are positioned to dramatically increase course access, especially for those students with the greatest opportunity for expanded learning opportunities.

Michael Ham profile photo

Michael Ham

The Learning Accelerator

Michael is an Associate Partner at the Learning Accelerator, a former instructional leader, and alumnus of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.