Special Report

Ed. Customization Lessons Learned from Online Credit Recovery

By Michelle R. Davis — March 14, 2011 5 min read
Ivette Garcia, 15, center, is in an online credit-recovery course for Algebra 1 at John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles. "We have to use computers," she says. "It makes us think more."
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One of the biggest struggles for students taking a course they had previously failed is making sure they understand the vocabulary unique to the subject. So when the online-course provider Aventa Learning was building credit-recovery courses, designers chose to preteach the pertinent vocabulary words.

Each section of Aventa’s online credit-recovery courses now features a list of key terms and definitions. Students can read the definitions in English or Spanish and click an audio button to have the terms read to them in either language.

Jim Kuhr, the senior director of curriculum development for the Anthem, Ariz.-based Aventa, which offers 19 different credit-recovery courses, says his company is now considering using the feature in all its online courses.

Developing credit-recovery courses “forces you to think more about what the factors are that contribute to the student not succeeding in the first place,” he says. “Once you understand what those factors are, you realize that of course we need to do that for everybody—not just credit-recovery students.”

Credit recovery is one of the areas of fastest growth for online learning. And while course designers often try to be inventive as they develop standard online courses, they must be even more creative when developing courses for those who have taken a course before and failed.

In doing so, online credit-recovery providers are finding that the more personalized teaching and learning strategies devised specifically for credit-recovery students are working just as well with students taking a course for the first time. And those strategies are now beginning to cross over into the mainstream of education, offering a host of lessons that could be applied to many courses.

Extra Personal Attention

For students taking courses from the North Carolina Virtual Public School, which serves about 40,000 students across the state and offers 12 credit-recovery courses, strategies for those courses are having a big impact on all the online courses offered, says Bryan Setser, the executive director of the school.

Designers of credit-recovery courses believed that those struggling students and their parents needed extra personal attention from the teacher, particularly during the first week of a course. So the virtual school makes sure those courses have a more intensive introductory process, with a built-in requirement that instructors have contact with the students or parents every day through the first assignment.

Feedback from the strategy was overwhelmingly positive, according to Setser. As a consequence, the school is phasing that strategy into all its courses, he says.

In addition, the school’s model for how students progress through a credit-recovery course has influenced the way Setser thinks about the pathways for other classes offered by the virtual school. Its credit-recovery students take preassessments that allow them to skip over or spend less time on concepts they’ve already mastered in order to spend more time on concepts they still don’t fully grasp. Because of that, course designers must create stand-alone modules for all the sections or areas of a course.

“This creates more of a parachute environment,” Setser says, meaning a student can jump into any module at any time depending on his or her ability. “We challenged teachers to design units that are thematic but could also stand alone.”

By adopting that method in other courses, the school now offers an opportunity for transfer students to enroll in a course in midsemester or for inspired students to finish courses more quickly and move on to others.

“They’re not bound by how the course was laid out,” Setser says. “We really picked that up from credit recovery, and it influenced our design.”

The Georgia Virtual School, with its affiliated Georgia Credit Recovery School, serves about 30,000 students statewide, and had a similar epiphany. Its credit-recovery courses do not feature an online instructor, and are self-facilitated, but have all the course content and assessments available online. The format allows students to go at their own pace. The courses also do pre- and post-assessments with conditional-release aspects: Students can’t continue on to the next module unless they score an 85 percent or higher on the pre- and post-assessments.

Because of that setup, those courses had to be packaged in modules that could be used independently and are tied specifically to Georgia state standards, says Christina A. Clayton, the director of virtual learning for the Georgia Virtual School.

Now, teachers in brick-and-mortar schools in Georgia are using the modules in their classrooms to supplement their in-person instruction for all students. They use them to introduce concepts, put aspects of the modules on their whiteboards, use video or simulations contained in the modules, or have students who need a bit more reinforcement use the modules from home, she says.

“People seem to think if it’s credit recovery, it’s not good material,” Clayton says. “That’s not the case.”

While abundant anecdotal evidence from schools and students suggests that online credit recovery is working, there is a lack of independent quantitative data to prove that credit-recovery courses are helping raise student achievement, says John Watson, the founder of the Evergreen, Colo.-based Evergreen Education Group, which conducts research on K-12 online learning.

“We haven’t looked at credit recovery in a lot of detail,” he says.

But Setser says that despite the lack of research, credit-recovery courses are definitely improving the wider range of online courses.

The North Carolina Virtual Public School put significant emphasis on designing a user-friendly graphic interface for its credit-recovery courses that is light on educational jargon, big on graphics, and heavy on large print and friendly colors. After looking at the credit-recovery courses, then examining the often text-laden Advanced Placement courses, for example, Setser says the school determined a change was needed.

“Our regular courses looked more like college textbooks online,” he says. “We wanted them to look user-interface-friendly,” like the credit-recovery courses.

At Aventa Learning, designers are planning to apply some credit-recovery successes to other online-course offerings, including a dynamic scheduler that allows credit-recovery students to input the date they start the course and the date by which they need to finish. The scheduler then maps out what actions and assignments are needed each week for them to get there.


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