Special Report

Group Outlines K-12 Online Course Standards

By Katie Ash — January 07, 2011 5 min read
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New standards outlining online-course design for grades 6-12 aim to guide developers of online and hybrid courses and provide a resource for educators and administrators to evaluate the quality of existing e-courses.

The rubric of standards, released in August 2010, was created by the Annapolis, Md.-based Quality Matters Program, a nonprofit organization known for its course-design standards for virtual learning in higher education and for its peer-review process used to ensure quality in postsecondary online courses.

Established in 2003 through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, the group’s postsecondary rubric is the most widely used benchmark of online-course design for higher education in the United States.

Now, the organization is moving into the K-12 arena.

“From the very beginning, there were questions as to whether [the postsecondary] standards could be applied elsewhere,” said Ron Legon, the executive director of Quality Matters Program. In 2008, the organization struck up a partnership with the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School to build a standards rubric for grades 6-12.

Over the next year and a half, researchers conducted an extensive literature review and a handful of pilot projects to gather information before crafting the new rubric, said Mr. Legon.

The standards pulled ideas from existing K-12 virtual-learning standards such as those published by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, and the Washington-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Then they tried to make their new standards address K-12 issues more specifically, tackling such topics as parent-teacher communication, privacy issues, and reading levels, Mr. Legon said.

“Our standards are very focused and very detailed on the elements of the course, which is unique as compared to the other standards,” he said. “Our emphasis is more on input—the design and building of the course and motivating faculty to think about best practices and what they can do to improve what they’re doing online.”

Because of their specificity, the standards will be revised every two years to keep them up to date, he said.

Evaluating Quality

Stacey Rimmerman, an instructional design, research, and evaluation professor at Capella University, an online education institution based in Minneapolis, and an education consultant, helped create the rubric and hopes it will help educators make good decisions about purchasing online courses.

“Most of the teachers and the district administrators aren’t trained to offer an online course, and there’s no additional funding [to develop them], so what they’re going to end up being forced to do is to purchase courses,” said Ms. Rimmerman.

“They need to be able to evaluate them for their own district,” she said, “which is why [the standards] seemed particularly important to me.”

Lining up standards with potential courses can provide a good measure of course quality, said Mickey Revenaugh, the senior vice president of state relations for the Baltimore-based online-course provider Connections Academy, which serves about 20,000 students across the country.

“There’s very little data about whether a course works,” said Ms. Revenaugh. Educators can get some idea of a course’s effectiveness through end-of-course tests, or Advanced Placement tests for AP courses, she said, as well as the number of students who completed the course, but “it’s all still kind of subjective and input-driven.”

“Standards really help [educators] make a good, safe bet that something’s high-quality,” she said.

In fact, a paper released by the New York City-based National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER, in June of last year found that some college students, particularly male, Hispanic, and struggling students, performed worse in a Web-based course than a face-to-face course, contradicting a 2009 meta-analysis of online education research by the U.S. Department of Education. That earlier review found that students in online courses or hybrid courses (a mix of online and in-person learning) performed as well as, or better than, students in face-to-face classes.

The results of the NBER study were based on roughly 300 students in an introductory microeconomics course.

Linking Academic Content

In addition to the online-course standards the International Association of K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, has developed, the group provides a service to schools by setting up review committees to help determine the quality of online courses before districts purchase those courses, said Susan D. Patrick, the organization’s president and chief executive officer.

Similarly, the Quality Matters Program also provides training sessions on how to implement its standards and apply them to existing online courses to evaluate quality.

In addition to course-design standards, academic-content standards, which vary from state to state, are equally important when reviewing online courses, online-learning experts say.

Cheryl Vedoe, the chief executive officer of Seattle-based Apex Learning, which provides online courses to 207,000 students, said her company uses content standards as the foundation for its online courses.

“When we develop online courses, we literally do start with the [content] standards,” she said. “We look at the content standards for a number of key states that are representative of the content standards across the majority of states, and we actually build our course outline, scope, and sequence based on those standards.”

The courses then go through a review process by the Gig Harbor, Wash.-based independent standards reviewer EdGate to identify any gaps in the standards, Ms. Vedoe said.

“Clearly, any course, regardless of what medium it’s taught in, needs to address [content] standards,” said Ms. Revenaugh of Connections Academy. In fact, aligning online courses with each state’s standards is one of the most costly and labor-intensive parts of creating an online course, she said.

That challenge is one reason why online-course providers are closely watching the Common Core State Standards Initiative and the work to craft common assessments matched to its standards.

“It’s incredibly exciting for anyone working in online learning serving students across the states,” Ms. Revenaugh said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Setting Expectations


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