Ed. Dept. Issues Inaugural Guide For Evaluating Online Learning

By Andrew Trotter — July 11, 2008 4 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education has released its first guide to the evaluation of K-12 online-learning programs, which have grown rapidly in recent years while evaluation methods for such education have lagged far behind.

The evaluations highlighted in the guide, which range from internal assessments to external scientific studies, demonstrate how program leaders and evaluators have successfully implemented strong evaluation practices despite challenges that seem inherent to learning in an online environment, according to the guide.

“While online-learning programs that deliver courses have been around for about a decade, this report is the first to fully address the issues in evaluating online programs in K-12 education,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the North American Council for Online Learning, or NACOL, which released its own standards for online programs earlier this year. (“Voluntary Online-Teaching Standards Come Amid Concerns Over Quality,” March 5, 2008)

School districts are turning to online courses, Web-based diploma-granting programs, and online instructional resources to address missions ranging from offering Advanced Placement courses or specialized instruction to more students, to “credit recovery” and alternative education, to providing supplementary resources to teachers and students in regular classrooms. Individual students and private and charter schools are also using more online learning, often with public funding.

The U.S. Department of Education, in its latest survey on distance learning, released last month, found that while the share of school districts with students who were enrolled in technology-based distance learning courses rose only slightly from 36 percent in the 2002-03 school year to 37 percent in 2004-05, the number of course enrollments vaulted from an estimated 317,000 to 507,000 for those years.

New Evaluations Needed

But evaluation methods have lagged far behind the swift growth, varied application, and complex nature of online learning.

“Online [education] adds a number of unique elements—in some cases, we need to build new [evaluation] instruments,” Timothy J. Magner, the director of the Education Department’s office of technology, said in an interview.

Mr. Magner spoke on a panel about evaluation issues at the National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio on July 2, the day the report was issued.

In the interview, he noted that an online course that has students at many different locations raises questions about the best types of data collection for measuring a program’s effectiveness. The research contractor that prepared the report, San Francisco-based WestEd, analyzed seven recent evaluations that were seen to be models of the types of studies needed for online programs and instructional resources.

The evaluations were of Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide Distance Learning; Algebra 1 Online; Appleton eSchool; the Arizona Virtual Academy; the Chicago Public Schools Virtual Academy; Digital Learning Commons; and Thinkport.

Descriptions and lessons from those evaluations form the heart of the 68-page report.

“The standards for evaluating online resources are different than the more comprehensive criteria that is needed to evaluate an online program, such as a virtual school within a state or district that offers a full course and provides a highly qualified teacher through online teaching,” said Ms. Patrick of NACOL, based in Vienna, Va.

Emphasizing Results

Ms. Patrick, who was Mr. Magner’s predecessor as the adviser on educational technology to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, said she made suggestions for the report based on a draft of it. She said she urged the department to separate the evaluation issues pertaining to complete online courses and online supplementary resources.

The report shows that the department “is focused on research to inform practice, and supports the growth of the important innovation of online learning in K-12 schools,” Ms. Patrick said. She added that she hopes the department will publish the evaluation instruments used in the research, to make the report “scalable” for other school districts.

Saul Rockman, a researcher and program evaluator, said that the ideas in the federal report are “generic,” but that it still “puts vendors on notice that their customers want to know the range of impacts they are likely to see from a distance-learning course or program.”

Mr. Rockman, the president of Rockman et al., based in San Francisco, added that “evaluation doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive.” Where extensive studies are not practical, simple measures of student participation and engagement in the academic subject can “allow you to talk more knowledgeably about issues important to the school community and that have value for kids,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Issues Inaugural Guide For Evaluating Online Learning


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