This school year in the Los Angeles Unified School District, there’s been a major shift in the way classes are provided to the students who need to repeat courses they have failed.
Traditionally, options for those students might be summer school classes or sitting through the same course the following semester, sometimes even with the same teacher. But now, many students who were unsuccessful the first time around can approach a course in a totally different way: online.
“We have an explosion in online credit recovery going on,” said Themistocles Sparangis, the chief technology director for the 680,000-student district. “That explosion negates the whole idea that virtual instruction is not for these kinds of students.”
This past fall, more than 2,500 students in the district took online credit-recovery courses, compared with about 300 last school year. And Los Angeles isn’t the only large urban district embracing the new technology. The Boston, Chicago, and New York City school districts are doing the same.
The reasons, Mr. Sparangis said, are numerous. Such classes allow for students to go at their own pace, for lessons to be differentiated, and for students to work free from embarrassment if they don’t understand a concept. Tracking student results in such classes in Los Angeles has shown that online credit recovery “is at least equal to or better than just giving the course again,” Mr. Sparangis said.
Because the use of online credit recovery is relatively new, there is little research, beyond anecdotal evidence, on its effectiveness in the K-12 arena. And some research suggests schools should be careful before assuming online credit recovery would work for most low achievers. For instance, a recent study of college students by the National Bureau of Economic Research noted that Hispanic, male, and low-achieving students benefited more from live instruction rather than online learning.
To be sure, Mr. Sparangis said he doesn’t expect to replace all the district’s credit-recovery options with online offerings. But he sees it as one more tool in the district’s toolbox to help struggling learners. “We’re going to continue with our traditional methods, but there is so much more that we need to do,” he said. “Adding more options is better.”
Credit recovery is one of the fastest-growing areas of online education, and the way course providers and developers are crafting those courses is changing quickly as well.
“We continually try to figure out what will motivate the students,” said Gregory Marks, the director of product development at the Lansing, Mich.-based Michigan Virtual University, a state-sponsored institution that produces online courses and oversees its K-12 arm, the Michigan Virtual School. “Providing context is very important.”
With a heavy emphasis on personalizing instruction, online credit-recovery courses can reach students by basing instruction in real-world concepts that help make a connection, Mr. Marks said. For example, one math unit on fractions uses a musical beat to help students understand the role fractions play in life outside of mathematics. Another course uses a trip around the state to calculate driving times, Mr. Marks said.
“It’s better because it’s on your own. You get to choose your pace.”
JOSE ARELLANO, 16
John C. Fremont High School, Los Angeles; Geometry
“I like it because I do learn a lot by the computer. I find it kind of easier. I understand it better with a computer than when a teacher is explaining.”
JENNIFER ANAYA, 17
John C. Fremont High School, Los Angeles; Geometry
Such online courses also integrate media and cater to most students’ ability to navigate the Web, allowing them to click through to see concepts, or linking them to video or simulations. They can listen to audio or watch video of lectures or lessons more than once to revisit something they might have missed or not understood, Mr. Sparangis said.
Another key element of online credit-recovery courses allows students to receive rapid feedback. The feedback can come from an online teacher or from technology embedded in the program, Mr. Marks said.
That technology can also provide each student with an individualized experience, something experts say gives students a greater chance of passing a course they’ve failed before.
With many management systems of online courses, the teacher can set mastery levels for each assignment, concept, or chapter, Mr. Sparangis said. The teacher can decide that a student will progress to the next unit or section only if he or she scores an 85 percent, for example, on an evaluation.
That differentiation for each student is vital for success, particularly in credit recovery, said David Young, an instructional designer at Michigan Virtual University. For example, in MVU’s algebra course—one of the most in-demand of the credit-recovery courses it offers—students begin each unit with a pretest. If they do well, they can skip that section and focus on content they really need to learn, Mr. Young said.
Mr. Marks said that strategy came about only through trial and error. Initially, students would spend hours doing a thorough preassessment before even starting the course. The result was that students were bored, and that not much useful information was collected.
Some school districts are identifying students for enrollment in online credit-recovery courses before they actually fail a class. Through a program last summer, the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Hamilton County Virtual School, which serves the 42,000-student Hamilton County district, focused its efforts on helping struggling elementary and middle school students.
The students took their courses in a computer lab with a facilitator present and an online teacher as well. They received breakfast and lunch and had their registration fees repaid if their attendance was good.
As students progressed through the reading and math courses, their path was tweaked every week by their online teacher. Eighty-three percent of the students successfully completed the program, said Debi Crabtree, the coordinator of the Hamilton County Virtual School, which serves about 1,000 online-credit-recovery students a year.
The first two weeks of the courses, no grades were counted, as the students got comfortable with online learning.
“Most of these kids were used to getting a lot of F’s, so we tried to start their path so that they could experience success and get used to this new interface,” Ms. Crabtree said.
Students went back to school for the new academic year more ready than before and, the district hopes, with a leg up on passing classes, Ms. Crabtree said. She plans to continue to target students with such credit-recovery courses before they fail.
“I would love to see us do so much more of this,” she said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Credit-Recovery Classes Take a Personal Approach