School & District Management Opinion

Better Learning Online

By Tom Vander Ark — August 22, 2012 3 min read
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Learning online is rapidly becoming part of every student’s day whether it’s a game on a smart phone, a workstation in a classroom, or an online course
with a teacher at a distance. As full and part-time online learning becomes more ubiquitous, critics have become more vocal. Reports have criticized mixed
results on traditional measures. State leaders press for effectiveness and efficiency.

Before addressing efforts to boost quality, it’s worth pointing out some of the unique challenges of learning online:

  • Most students enroll late--65 percent says one national provider--and late enrollers perform significantly worse and withdraw at much higher rates than
    students that enroll on time.

  • Providers receive little or no information about a student, particularly trend data (i.e., a learning trajectory).

  • Online schools are often much larger and very diverse (i.e., it can be harder to make AYP with 5,000 than 500).

  • Students not successful in a traditional setting enroll in online schools seeking an alternative. Districts complain about students returning from
    charters, but the same happens to online charters--11th graders with two credits show up and leave the enrollment records of the local school

  • New students often perform very poorly (which may reflect prior achievement as well as new modality) and, as a result, the percentage of new students
    predicts performance.

  • Students whose parents do not attend information sessions or meet with teachers withdraw at much higher rates (but providers typically can’t require an
    in person kickoff session).

  • Some providers report that students that are not-proficient are more likely to re-enroll than if they are proficient suggesting that some
    parents just don’t want to be hassled about student achievement and leaving a small band of persistently low performer (but maybe that’s true for many

  • State models rating what is basically the same program report widely different results (e.g., see NCES report on differences in state growth models).

Like traditional schools, it’s clear that online learning doesn’t work for everyone. However, it would be difficult to mandate guided choice without
erecting barriers to access.

There are some unique challenges, but the rapid growth of online learning requires collaborative efforts of policy makers and providers to promote quality

Digital Learning Now
recommends a rigorous authorization process, performance-based funding that rewards completion and achievement, and strong accountability systems that do
no renew failing schools.

As part of an NCLB waiver, Minnesota introduced K12 Online Learning Performance Metrics Projects, part of a Multiple Measures Rating system. A dashboard approach
like this may include measures of proficiency and growth, graduation and college readiness, achievement gaps.

There are two specific advances that will help boost quality of online and transitional schools. First, we need more discrete growth measures that measure
growth to the course and even unit level and do it on an absolute (e.g., a Lexile scale) not just a relative scale.

Second, we need a national standard on an electronic student records. It’s time to push beyond the floor set by the Data Quality Campaign--state test scores
and high school courses passed. A full gradebook of instructional and benchmark standards-based assessments should follow a student from grade to grade and
school to school. (Watch for a white paper on this issue in October.)

Online providers capture a lot of data about students. As the U.S. education system shifts to personal digital learning, states, districts and foundations
should consider research and development partnerships with online learning providers--they already live in the data rich learning environment of the future.

In summary, to realize the promise of online learning and help more students reach college and career readiness, states need to:

1. Use multiple measures that combine growth and proficiency

2. Conduct rigorous authorization

3. Enforce strong accountability

4. Develop better growth models

5. Require a gradebook of data follow students from school to school; and

6. Provide funding that promotes completion and achievement.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.