Special Report

Linking E-Courses to ‘Common Core’ Academic Standards

By Katie Ash — January 07, 2011 6 min read
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The widespread pledge by states to adopt “common core” academic standards could allow online education to truly break down state boundaries for teachers and students for the first time, and reduce the cost of online-course creation, experts in virtual education say.

“Now, for the first time ever, online-learning programs in different states and different programs have a common framework,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the Vienna, Va.-based International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL. “Now we can start sharing, collaborating, and really refining what we’re doing.”

Typically, online courses have had to be written separately for each state, said Ms. Patrick. “The [state] standards are written so differently that [each state] has to create their own classes from scratch,” she said. With common-core standards, “states can work together ... because they’re all dealing with the same standards.”

As of December, 43 states and the District of Columbia had said they would adopt the work of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is being led by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, or CCSSO, both based in Washington. The project so far has produced standards in English/language arts and mathematics for grades K-12.

“The bad news is nobody has materials that are aligned to common-core standards, therefore somebody is going to have to invest significantly in developing suitable materials and lessons and online assessments, which takes time, money, and talent,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education think tank.

“The good news is that these materials and lessons ought to be able to be used across most of the country, rather than having to be customized for every state or every city,” he said.

Cheryl Vedoe, the chief executive officer of the Seattle-based online-course provider Apex Learning, which has aligned its courses with the standards, said shifting to the common core will make online-course development more efficient.

“[Common core] means that [online-course] publishers ... will not have to spend as much resources or time on ensuring our courses meet the wide range of standards that currently exists across states,” she said. “Sometimes the variations can be minor, but sometimes they can be reasonably significant, and it adds to the overall expense of developing courses.”

Building Assessments

Others in the online-learning world are also upbeat about the standards.

“Just from a pure pedagogical point of view, it’s really exciting,” 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. It has aligned its courses with the common-core standards.

E-Course Standards

The Quality Matters Program, a nonprofit organization that researches and develops standards for online-course design, outlines several standards that need to be met to ensure online courses are well crafted. Highlights of those standards follow:

1. The overall design and expectations of the course are made clear to the student at the beginning of the course. For instance, students should be informed of how to get started, how to access course components, and what prerequisite knowledge and technical skills they should have, as well as the “netiquette” expected for online discussions, e-mail interactions, and other communications.

2. Learning objectives, which have measurable outcomes aligned with content standards, are clearly stated and explained. Students should receive clear instructions on how those objectives are to be met.

3. Assessments, which should be consistent with course activities and resources, should be sequenced, varied, and appropriate to the content being evaluated. The grading policy for the course should be clearly stated, and students should have opportunities to engage in “self-checks” or practice assessments with timely feedback from the instructor. The criteria for how students will be evaluated should be stated clearly and specifically.

4. Instructional materials are authoritative, current, and appropriately chosen for the level of the course. They should have sufficient breadth and depth and meet state and local content standards. The materials should also be of an appropriate reading level, balanced and bias-free, and properly cited. Students should understand the relationship between the materials and the learning activities.

5. Meaningful online interactions between the teacher and students, among students, and between students and course materials are employed to motivate students and foster intellectual commitment and personal development. Students should know what to expect from their teachers, such as how long it will take to receive feedback on an e-mail message or an assessment, and they should know what kind of interaction is expected of them during the course.

6. Course-navigation features and the technology employed in the course foster student engagement and ensure access to instructional materials and resources. For example, the course should take advantage of available tools and media, encourage students to be active learners, and provide instructions on how to access resources.

7. The course clearly identifies policies and services for students with disabilities and outlines the technical support available. Course instructions should also include information on how the institution’s academic and student services can help students reach educational goals, as well as answer any basic questions about research, writing, or technology use.

8. The face-to-face and online course components are accessible to all students. That means there are equivalent alternatives to visual or auditory content in the course material for students with hearing or visual disabilities, the computer screen offers adequate readability, and the course pages have self-describing and meaningful Web links.

9. The course is aligned with state standards and fulfills any mandated communication or information required by the state or school district.

Sources: Quality Matters Program; Education Week

Having a set of standards that crosses state lines will not only make it easier to develop content, but also allow students to transfer from state to state and stay on track, Ms. Revenaugh said.

“The common core just makes [courses] much more portable,” she said.

However, before states can actively implement the standards, assessments that accurately evaluate student progress under the common core need to be developed, said Ms. Vedoe of Apex Learning. And testing experts say that undertaking could require a lot of time and effort.

“At the moment, we’ve got common-core standards, but we don’t have assessments,” Ms. Vedoe said. “We’re all hopeful that there will be real movement in that direction.”

Linda Pittenger, the interim chief operating officer of the CCSSO, sees crafting assessments as an opportunity for the virtual-learning community.

“Online learning has always been in a position to be a leader in the field of next-generation assessments,” she said, partly because assessment is often embedded into online curricula.

She added that online learning is particularly well poised to put the common-core standards in place, because the field has long been a platform for innovation.

“Now we have the opportunity to have conversations around quality and content,” said Ms. Pittenger. “It’s not a silver bullet, but it puts us in a new, better place.”

Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the Glen Burnie, Md.-based State Educational Technology Directors Association, or setda, said implementation of the standards will likely occur after the two assessment consortia that received federal grants through the Race to the Top Fund have completed their work.

Those consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers and the smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—were awarded $170 million and $160 million, respectively, to build assessments that evaluate students based on common-core standards by the 2014-15 school year.

In addition to curricula and assessments, though, states will need to create professional-development materials and promote policies that support common standards and multistate collaboration, Mr. Levin said.

“Not only does [the common core] give states permission to work with each other, it encourages states to work together to share resources and ideas,” he said.

“One of the challenges right now with this sharing is that there are intellectual-property licenses” that prevent states and districts from legally sharing information, Mr. Levin added. States will have to revise policies to support that kind of information-sharing, he said.

‘That’s the Dilemma’

The Modesto, Calif.-based California Learning Resource Network, which vets digital resources against academic-content standards, recently updated its database to allow content providers to submit resources aligned with the common-core standards, said Brian Bridges, the director of the organization.

The California network is also poised to begin reviewing online courses aligned with the standards, said Mr. Bridges.

One challenge of the common-core standards, when it comes to high school math, said Mr. Bridges, is that the standards are laid out in strands, which do not necessarily correlate with courses.

“They’re not courses, but lists of standards under different topics. That’s the dilemma for us,” he said in an e-mail.

A new document, “Designing High School Mathematics Courses Based on the Common Core Standards,” is awaiting approval from the California education department and the state board of education. Once approved, the document could provide more clarity on the subject, said Mr. Bridges.

Tom Welch, an education consultant with the Lexington, Ky.-based TWelch Consulting, worked with the CCSSO to launch a Virtual Learning Magnet for space science and mathematics that is student-directed and performance-based through a partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The team created a proof-of-concept online physics course involving 50 students from across the United States, as well as a handful of international students. On the heels of the pilot program, NASA awarded the CCSSO a contract to devise a series of interdisciplinary independent-studies courses based on common-core standards.

“[Common-core standards] come much closer to an interest-driven curriculum,” Mr. Welch said. “It really opens the door for autonomy for students.”

Each standard has enough flexibility for a student to be able to address it in a way that interests him or her, he explained. That latitude, paired with the flexibility of a virtual environment, makes the common core a good fit for online learners, he said.

For now, though, most states and districts are still just envisioning implementation of the common core, rather than going forward with it, said Mr. Levin of setda.

“What we’re beginning to see is states beginning to think about what implementation might look like and how that might roll out,” he said. “States and providers are probably further along in thinking about content and curriculum, and the professional-development conversation is one that’s beginning in a few places as well.”

But a tremendous amount of work has to happen before the standards will have an impact on K-12 education, he said.

“We’ve been acting as if adoption is the end of the road,” said Mr. Levin, “when in fact it’s really the beginning.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Linking E-Courses To ‘Common Core’


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