Classroom Technology

Voluntary Online-Teaching Standards Come Amid Concerns Over Quality

By Andrew Trotter — February 29, 2008 7 min read
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As learning over the Internet grows in both popularity and controversy, experts are hoping that a new set of national standards for online teaching may help bring clarity and credibility to an industry that some analysts say sorely needs both.

The voluntary standards, released Feb. 21 by the North American Council for Online Learning, or NACOL, a trade association based in Vienna, Va., are designed to serve as a checklist for good online teaching.

The new standards will “allow policymakers to have some sort of independent review of the online programs,” and give course providers a reference point for their own programs’ quality, said John F. Watson, the founder of Evergreen Consulting Associates, an Evergreen, Colo.-based firm that publishes “Keeping Pace With K-12 Online Learning,” an annual policy report on issues in online education.

“All this didn’t exist in the recent past,” Mr. Watson said. “There was no good way to determine if an online provider is doing a very good job in terms of teaching.”

Topics in the standards include teacher prerequisites such as state licensure, subject-area proficiency, technology skills, and experience as a student in online courses.

They also cover practices such as planning and using strategies for active learning and collaboration; complying with intellectual-property rights; interacting with students and parents; addressing special needs; and using a range of appropriate evaluations, assessments, and data.

Teachers at Connections Academy, a virtual education company based in Baltimore, communicate with students over the phone and via the Internet.

By defining good teaching in an online environment, the standards could be used, among other purposes, to shape teacher professional development, recruitment, supervision, and compensation; to guide the design of online courses or evaluate purchases of online courses; and to judge the performance of online schools and courses under state accountability systems, advocates say.

Several leading online-course providers welcomed the standards, which are outlined in a 13-page report.

“What has hurt virtual education has been some low-quality players who have been confused with higher-quality players,” said Bror Saxberg, the chief learning officer of K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based company that is the nation’s largest for-profit provider of online K-12 education.

Mr. Saxberg said he wished the standards had addressed additional issues. Nonetheless, he said nationally recognized standards would “set a baseline” of quality in the marketplace for online education—as long as schools and other customers use them. “If the customer doesn’t use the standards that have been carefully constructed, the products and services aren’t going to end up being aligned with them,” he cautioned.

State-Level Conflicts

The new standards could have an immediate impact in fights in some states over the public funding of virtual charter schools.

In Wisconsin, for example, a lawsuit by the state’s largest teachers’ union led to a court ruling that threatens to cut off state funding of virtual charter schools serving about 3,500 students.

Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and Kansas have all had controversies over the quality and funding of online school programs and have conducted formal audits of them, according to Mr. Watson.

In Colorado, a dust-up over an online school several years ago led to a state audit of online programs in 2006 and the creation of a state oversight office for virtual schools. That office has yet to adopt quality standards, Mr. Watson said, adding that the new standards will be “incredibly valuable.”

In Wisconsin, state legislators remained at loggerheads over competing proposals to address a state appeals court ruling in December that an online charter school run by the Northern Ozaukee school district violates the state’s teacher-certification law and other state statutes, and so cannot legally receive state money.

Wisconsin Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, has threatened a veto, however, of any bill that does not include a temporary cap on enrollment in virtual schools in the state—a provision that supporters of the schools reject.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council, which filed the lawsuit that led to the ruling and is politically supportive of Gov. Doyle, argued that the Wisconsin Virtual Academy is using parents, not certified teachers, to teach students.

“The point of our lawsuit was to call upon the legislature to define quality,” Dustin Beilke, a spokesman for the teachers’ union, wrote in an e-mail.

The Wisconsin academy purchases curriculum, technology, and various services from K12 Inc. But Kurt Bergland, the principal of the school, which has 800 students taking online courses from around the state, said that its courses are taught by teachers who work for the school district and are evaluated under Wisconsin’s teacher standards.

Online courses use electronic whiteboards, which allow teachers to present video and text in real time. Students have microphones and text-chat tools and can interact with one another during sessions.

Mr. Bergland said he does classroom observations of his teachers by joining the real-time sessions they are conducting with their students. In August, he said, the school began using a draft version of the NACOL standards to train its new teachers.

Earlier Work

The organization’s “National Standards for Quality Online Teaching” draws heavily on standards developed by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, and to a lesser degree by the Ohio Department of Education (requires Microsoft Word). The trade group also reviewed relevant work by the National Education Association and virtual-learning providers.

NACOL will give further reach to those previous efforts, several observers said.

Susan D. Patrick, a former adviser on educational technology to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings who is now the president and chief executive officer of NACOL, said the new standards—as well as the group’s other standards-writing projects—will help “dispel a myth that [in online education] there’s a student sitting in front of a screen and that there’s a lot of scanned information.”

Ms. Patrick said the group will next work on writing national standards for evaluating online-program quality, including the use of student test scores, digital portfolios, and other achievement data in evaluations.

For example, “in Pennsylvania, cyber charters have 40 different benchmarks they have to report every year” to the state, she said.

To some skeptics, the new standards dance around more fundamental concerns about online schooling.

“It can’t hurt to begin to develop standards,” said Alan M. Warhaftig, a teacher and the magnet coordinator at Fairfax Magnet Center for the Visual Arts, in the Los Angeles school district. “The question is, when is it appropriate for students under 18 to be enrolled in online courses?”

Mr. Warhaftig said he believes that face-to-face interaction gives teachers an unparalleled understanding of their students’ learning, and that students also learn and get socialization benefits from their classmates.

He argues that online courses should be reserved for special situations, such as allowing a few students at a remote school to study a language or take an Advanced Placement course for which a teacher is not available, or serving students with certain medical conditions.

“What vendors want is access to general public education—there are a lot of agendas going on here,” he said.

Looking over the NACOL standards, Mr. Warhaftig said they seemed very general and laced with buzzwords.

Not ‘Too Prescriptive’

But officials of online schools countered that such schools have the potential to help administrators better supervise teachers and improve teaching, in part because computer systems store extensive records of online teachers’ interactions with students, which supervisors can observe or review.

“In brick-and-mortar classrooms, once the teacher shuts the door, what the teacher is doing is pretty much of a mystery,” said Mickey Revenaugh, the vice president of state relations for Connections Academy, a Baltimore-based company that runs virtual schools under contracts with charter schools and school districts in 15 states.

Ms. Revenaugh, who is a member of NACOL’s board of directors, said her company hasn’t figured out how the NACOL standards may complement the company’s own rules.

But she said she was “pretty impressed” with the standards: “They focus on the higher purpose, without being too prescriptive about the way you get there.”

For example, though the standards say online teaching should include interaction among students, they do not specify that such interaction should be “via message board” or some other method, she noted.

“Where states get into trouble is trying to prescribe what it looks like,” Ms. Revenaugh said. “If you nailed it perfectly in 2008, I can almost guarantee that by 2009, it’s going to be out of date.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Voluntary Online-Teaching Standards Come Amid Concerns Over Quality


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