Special Report
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Opportunity Ripe For Online ELL Ed.

By Ian Quillen — August 22, 2011 6 min read

Among special populations of students, English-language learners may represent virtual learning’s last frontier.

With the dual challenges of grasping a new language and keeping up with other academic studies, ELLs would seem poised to benefit greatly from the prospect of self-paced study, direct teacher correspondence without other students observing, and an adaptive curriculum. Yet, such students appear to represent one of the smallest slices of virtual student enrollment, and they typically encounter online learning through pathways that differ from the experiences of most online learners.

For example, across virtual schools run by the Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., only about 2 percent of enrolled students—or roughly 1,800—qualify for English-as-second-language, or ESL, instruction and support. Of those students, more than half have been adopted into native English-speaking families, estimates Jenny Kendall, K12’s director of special programs.

“I don’t think the ESL community has found the benefit of this home-environment learning for a student,” said Ms. Kendall, who acknowledges there are a variety of reasons.

Parents of ELLs may have emigrated from a country where online learning is unfamiliar, for example, and they may not be proficient enough in English to act as learning coaches for younger students. And students who are receiving basic-level English instruction may not have enough grasp of the language to follow along in text-heavy courses.

“It’s a population that is not significant for us,” Ms. Kendall said of English-learners. “But the benefits of this would encourage growth and enrollment.”

At the public, 120,000-student Florida Virtual School, which offers its services for free to in-state students, only 3.3 percent of the half-credit enrollments—or about 8,500 of more than 250,000 enrollments total—have been identified as ELLs, in a state where the ELL population is about 15 percent of all students. Of those enrolled ELLs, nearly 1,000 encountered Florida Virtual through the school’s new virtual-learning-lab program, in which brick-and-mortar districts offer a synchronous version of one of the virtual school’s courses in a computer lab, often to reduce class size as a result of statewide class-size mandates.

Florida Virtual’s ELL enrollment represents about 10 percent of the 10,000 students served in the program’s first year, mostly in the 310,000-student Miami-Dade County district. The program is expected to expand to 17,000 students this school year, said Julie Durrance, the school’s blended-learning manager, who warned that it may not be the right fit for all ELL students.

“It’s very individual. Some kids get into it, and don’t speak the language, and they say, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” said Ms. Durrance. “Your level-one [most-basic ESL] students are probably not the best candidates. To put them into an independent situation like this was just setting them up for failure. The schools that did that [last year] did that without our knowledge.”

Enrollments Lagging

Even programs that have more explicitly targeted ELL students have found difficulty enrolling them.

In Philadelphia, the ASPIRA Bilingual Charter School, run by the Pennsylvania chapter of the Latino advocacy group of the same name, began operations last year as what appears to be among the first online bilingual charter schools in the country, but served only 31 students across grades 8-12. The chapter also runs a network of brick-and-mortar charter schools and other educational endeavors.

5.3 million
Nationwide ELL enrollment during 2008-09 school year

10.8%
Percent of K-12 students nationwide

ELL enrollment at Florida Virtual School during 2010-11 school year:
8,500 Half-credit course enrollments
3.3% Of total half-credit enrollments

Full-time ELL enrollment at K12 Inc.-managed virtual schools during 2010-11 school year:
1,800 Students
2.2% Of total enrollment

SOURCES: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition; Florida Virtual School; K12 Inc.

In its first year, the cyber charter had a substantial population of students who had dropped out of school, many of whom are also working parents.

And at some full-time virtual schools, students who should be receiving ESL services may not be. For example, at the Arizona Virtual Academy, a K12 Inc. school where about 4,500 students study full time, the middle school principal, Jeanna Pignatiello, said that only a handful of the 150 to 200 students annually thought to be eligible for ESL services actually accept them.

Ms. Pignatiello said that may be due to the culture created by state legislation that mandates ELL students be separated from other students during four hours of English instruction daily.

Lori Langer de Ramirez, who chairs the ESL department at New York’s 4,000-student Herricks Union Free School District, on Long Island, and is author of the book Empower English Language Learners With Tools From the Web, says that, while some ELLs need more hands-on attention than online courses provide, many other ELLs who should be exposed to online learning options aren’t.

She suggested one mistake educators make is to assume that all ELL students have had limited exposure to technology that would be used in an online class in their home lives, either stateside or in the countries they emigrated from. Another is withholding all online-course options from ELLs, even in those subjects where reading comprehension isn’t as important.

“The particular group of English-language learners in my district … could go online and do math without a second thought,” said Ms. Langer de Ramirez, who said many of those students are of East Asian descent. “The areas that are most challenging for English-language learners are obviously English, but also social studies. I wouldn’t want them to do social studies apart from a physical class, but I could see them doing support work online.”

The Florida Virtual School even offers some of its courses in other languages. English-learners often enroll in native-language courses in subjects such as driver education and physical education, Ms. Durrance said.

On-Campus Options

Meanwhile, there are other options specifically for ELLs that involve learning online without leaving the campus.

The Imagine Learning English software program targets ELLs—among other populations—and presents ESL material in an adaptive and interactive manner that allows students to work through and master concepts individually.

Similarly, the HELP Math program for ELL and special education students is a Web-based adaptive-learning program that includes interactive features that communicate concepts both in the student’s native language and in English while also aiding language acquisition. The program has found a home in 150 schools and serves upwards of 20,000 students in grades 3-8, said Barbara Freeman, the program’s creator and chief operating officer of its Carbondale, Colo.-based parent company, Digital Directions International. The program’s research and development was partially funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and the program offers schoolwide subscriptions and individual student licenses.

Ms. Freeman estimates that 90 percent of schools using HELP when it was first developed delivered it in computer labs rather than an everyday classroom. That number has dropped, but only to 50 percent to 60 percent, she says.

And while she believes her program has great benefits for ELL students who may need more personalization than an instructor alone can provide, she cautions against the use of any software intervention program that distances students from the school culture they’re trying to join.

“I have a real fear of a dialysis model of instruction, where, if you’re failing with instruction, you go sit on the computer,” Ms. Freeman said. “It’s the process of monitoring the student’s growth that is very, very important to us.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Opportunity Ripe for Online ELL Ed.

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