Federal

Ed. Dept. Releases Guide for Evaluating Online Learning

By Andrew Trotter — July 02, 2008 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education today released its first guide to the evaluation of online-learning programs in K-12 education.

The report is designed to help school leaders gauge the effectiveness of online education, as its use grows rapidly across the United States.

“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, complete grade-level and degree-granting programs, and instructional resources to address missions ranging from Advanced Placement or specialized instruction, 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 procuring online learning, often with public funding.

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 instruments,” said Timothy J. Magner, the director of the Education Department’s office of technology.

Mr. Magner was here attending the National Educational Computing Conference, where he was to speak about evaluation issues today as part of a panel discussing the report.

Different Evaluations Needed

He noted, for example, that an online course that has students at many different locations raises the question of what are the best types of data collection for measuring a program’s performance. Using online surveys for a widely dispersed population might be most convenient, but it may not be accurate, because technology and supervision and other conditions might vary widely as well; site visits might even be necessary sometimes.

The diverse goals of online instruction also call for different kinds of evaluations, Mr. Magner said.

The contractor that prepared the report, WestEd Inc., based in San Francisco, 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; the 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, who was Mr. Magner’s predecessor as the adviser on educational technology to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Ms. Patrick of NACOL, based in Vienna, Va., said she made suggestions based on a draft of the report, urging the department to separate the evaluation issues pertaining to complete online courses and online supplementary resources.

She said the report shows that the Education Department “is focused on research to inform practice, and supports the growth of the important innovation of online learning in K-12 schools.” 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.

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