The “Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning” now available

As digital learning becomes increasingly common, the need for new and up to date information is growing as well. But as editors of the new Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning describe, “many [researchers] new to the field thought that they were discovering K-12 online and blended instruction for the first time.” The editors, Rick Ferdig of Kent State University and Kathryn Kennedy of Michigan Virtual University’s Virtual Learning Research Institute, have created a handbook to act as a key resource for existing and new researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in the field. Amy Murin and I contributed the opening chapter, A History of K-12 Online and Blended Instruction in the United States. Other initial chapters lay the groundwork of the historical, international, and political landscape of digital learning. Subsequent sections share a synthesis of theoretical and empirical work describing where the field has been, what is currently known, and where researchers hope to explore in the areas of learning and learners, content, teaching, technological innovations, mobile learning, and other areas. Among the contributing authors are Michael Barbour, Kerry Rice, Susan Lowes, Leanna Archambault, Scott McLeod, and Cathy Cavanaugh.

The book is licensed under Creative Commons and available for free download, or in print for $33.95. I haven’t confirmed whether it will ship in time to be a stocking stuffer this year.


Speaking of the holidays…with the end of the year fast approaching and many schools and others slowing or shutting down for the next two weeks, we will be doing so as well. Best wishes to all for a peaceful and rewarding end of the year. We will be back on or around January 5, 2015.


Digitally-innovative charter schools are varied and growing

In addition to online charter schools, a second category of charter schools is made up of those that are using digital content and tools extensively to change their instructional approaches. Some of the examples discussed below were started as schools that use extensive digital content and instruction. Others started as physical schools with little or no digital learning.

These site-based charter schools share some characteristics with fully online charter schools, but in many ways they are fundamentally different. For example:

  • Their level of digital instruction varies. They may use digital content and tools across most subject areas, or in just one core area.
  • The proportion of instruction that takes place online varies between subjects, grade levels, and schools.
  • Because they require students to attend the physical school on most days, they are geographically limited. Student mobility in these schools is not as high as mobility in online schools.
  • Compared to public school districts, they are more likely to be using pioneering approaches to classroom and school configurations, instructional models, and bell schedules.
  • They often provide extensive professional development for teachers, because they are not able to hire enough teachers who have sufficient experience using digital content and tools.

Performance of these site-based charter schools tends to be better than state averages, although limitations of state performance frameworks that were discussed previously (see third to last paragraph) apply here as well. Some Rocketship, KIPP, and Alliance schools are among those that have demonstrated performance that surpasses state averages in terms of state assessments, graduation rates, and college matriculation. Because the portion of instruction that is digital varies, the extent to which positive results can be attributed to digital learning is unclear. Most of these schools are using innovative approaches to instruction (such as mastery-based learning and personalized learning plans) that may rely on digital tools, but use extensive non-digital, innovative instructional models as well.

Examples of digitally-innovative charter schools include the following:

Nexus Academy

Nexus Academy is a network of small (no more than 300 students) college prep charter high schools supported by Connections Education. The first five Nexus Academy schools opened in fall 2012 in Ohio and Michigan; the network added two schools in fall 2013 in Indiana and Michigan. Nexus Academy students report to campus four hours per day, four days per week, and work away from campus for about 14 hours per week. While on campus, students spend part of their time in college commons-like team zones supervised by para-educators who help them stay on track and connect with their online teachers. English and math instruction is provided by face-to-face teachers working with students in small group. Most of the Nexus Academy campuses also have fitness centers staffed by personal trainers who develop individualized fitness plans for every student. Both online and on-site teachers use student performance data to schedule students for real-time direct instruction, intervention, and group/project-based learning. In SY 2012–13 (the most recent year for which complete data are available), 92% of Nexus Academy seniors graduated, and 95% of graduates were accepted into higher education.

Blended charter schools supported by K12, Inc.

K12 Inc. opened the San Francisco Flex Academy in 2010; it serves about 100 students in grades 9–12. The Silicon Flex Academy followed in 2011, serving about 350 students, and the Newark NJ Prep Charter Academy in 2012, which served about 300 students in SY 2013–14. Students attend the schools full-time, but are given flexibility in how they meet their academic goals. Curriculum is available online, and support is available from teachers who work with students independently and in small groups, as well as from academic coaches. K12 Inc. also operates the Youth Connections Charter School’s Chicago Passport program (2009), and the Hill House Passport Academy in Pittsburgh (fall 2014), both of which are blended programs that target students who have dropped out of high school, offering a flexible path to high school graduation.

Summit Public Schools

Summit Public Schools operates seven charter high schools serving approximately 2,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it has been approved to open two schools in Washington State in fall 2015. A SY 2011–12 pilot in math classrooms in two schools using Khan Academy laid the foundation for the first two fully blended schools that opened in SY 2013–14, and for the approach being used by all seven Summit schools as of SY 2014–15. The schools use a combination of self-directed online learning, small group work, project-based learning, and individualized attention from teachers and support staff in a very different type of academic space that allows for students to work independently on computers, with small groups, or with larger groups in a classroom. Summit has monitored its blended learning implementation carefully, using data from student surveys, student focus groups, and student performance to drive improvement. Its blended schools found positive results compared to the Summit schools that had not yet implemented blended learning.

Aspire Public Schools

Aspire Public Schools was founded in 1998 in Silicon Valley. It now operates 34 schools in California and three schools in Tennessee, together serving over 37,000 students. For the past four years, 100% of Aspire’s graduates have been accepted for admission to a four-year college or university. Every year, Aspire creates a report about each school that includes standardized test results, parent involvement opportunities, the school’s API score (in California), and enrollment data. Its Tennessee schools won a Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, and Aspire plans to expand with 10 additional schools in Tennessee in the next few years. Aspire introduced blended learning in two of its schools in 2011, incorporated it into five schools by SY 2013–14, and is planning to use blended learning in 14 schools across the country by SY 2015–16, including all of its Los Angeles schools.


KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) launched in 1994, and is one of the largest charter management organizations in the country with 162 charter schools in 20 states and Washington, DC serving 58,000 students as of SY 2014–15. KIPP’s origins predate widespread digital learning, and varied instructional models exist in different schools. However, many KIPP schools including five in Los Angeles utilize blended learning. Each spring the KIPP Foundation releases a report card that contains school information, school demographics, and test score data for all KIPP schools.

FirstLine Schools

FirstLine Schools was founded in 1998 under the name Middle School Advocates, and changed its name to FirstLine in 2008. It served about 2,400 students in four elementary schools and one high school in New Orleans in SY 2013–14. Its schools serve an average of a 97% free and reduced-price meal population, and historically, its students performed very poorly on state assessments. Arthur Ashe Elementary School and Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School began using a rotation model of blended instruction in SY 2011–12 in math and English language arts; all five schools are incorporating blended models as of SY 2014–15. In eight years of operation, each school has shown positive growth results, and all schools are near or above state averages for achievement.

Alliance College-Ready Public Schools

Alliance College-Ready Public Schools is a charter school network of 26 middle and high schools serving more than 10,000 students in the greater Los Angeles area, most of whom are low-income. Alliance creates a personalized learning plan for each student, and 10 of its schools use a digital learning approach the network calls “Blended Learning for Alliance School Transformation.”

In addition to the above schools, Rocketship Education and Carpe Diem are two well-known school networks; profiles of them are available in the Keeping Pace 2014 annual report.

This is not an exhaustive list. Additional charter schools and networks that are taking innovative approaches to the use of digital learning include USC Hybrid High School in Los Angeles, Intrinsic Schools in Chicago, and Matchbook Learning, with schools in Detroit and Newark.

Online charter schools provide a valuable option for a small number of students

We have recently been discussing the digital learning landscape in blog posts reviewing district activity (one, two, three, four) and state virtual schools (one and two). Back in October, a post discussed how growth in online schools appears to be slowing.

Many of those online schools are charter schools. Of the roughly 316,000 students who attended online schools in SY 2013-14, about 200,000 are enrolled in online charter schools.

These schools generally share the following characteristics:

  • They provide students’ entire course load through online courses, and do not have a physical building that students attend regularly.
  • They are responsible for students’ state assessments, and are graded based on the state’s performance framework, similar to other public schools.
  • Teachers and students communicate from a distance, using online communication tools (both synchronous and asynchronous) and telephones.
  • The schools or management networks often provide extensive professional development for teachers, because they are not able to hire enough teachers with sufficient previous experience teaching online.
  • Collectively they serve all grade levels, and methods of instruction vary between grade levels. Younger students spend less time online and use more print materials, and work with a parent or other learning coach for help. Older students spend more time online, use fewer print materials, and communicate mostly with their teacher online.
  • Many online charter schools (which collectively enroll more than half of all students attending online charter schools) are supported by private education management organizations (EMOs), the largest of which are K12 Inc. and Connections Academy. They enroll students from across entire states, in order to reach a critical mass.
  • The schools serve students with much higher rates of mobility than the student population as a whole. In the case of elementary and middle school students, many attend an online school due to temporary reasons (illness, injury, behavioral issues, allergies). In high schools, in addition to those reasons, many students move to an online school because they are behind and at risk of dropping out of school altogether.
  • Although many schools serve between 500 and 1,500 students, some are very large, such as Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (10,389 students), Ohio Virtual Academy (13,147 students), and the Electronic High School of Tomorrow (also in Ohio, with 13,537 students).

More information about student outcomes is readily available from charter schools than about any of the other segments of digital learning (district programs, alt ed, state virtual schools). This is because in most cases charter schools are separate schools, which is the unit at which public education is primarily assessed. Charter school students take state assessments and the schools are evaluated by the state in the way that all public schools in the state are graded.

Many school administrators (not just those associated with online learning or charter schools) believe that state assessment systems and performance frameworks do not paint an accurate picture of school performance, for a variety of reasons but especially because the socioeconomic status of a school’s students is generally a highly accurate predictor of school performance. Online school administrators argue that state performance frameworks are particularly poor at assessing online school performance for several reasons. Most states’ performance systems weigh proficiency heavily, and many students in online schools enter the school behind in grade level, or otherwise exhibiting one or more characteristics of at-risk students. Student growth and graduation rates are often based on student cohorts and other factors other than individual students’ learning trajectories. In addition, online schools have high rates of student mobility, which are not well accounted for in state performance frameworks and especially in graduation rates.

Many states recognize the shortcomings of their performance frameworks and are adding additional measures including improved growth measures and college readiness, but most states still weight proficiency heavily. Within the existing frameworks, online schools as a group tend to score below state averages. Some individual online charter schools score at or above average, demonstrating that online schools can be successful.

An upcoming post will explore blended charter schools.

“A decade of mediocre results is our control group”

The title of this blog post—“a decade of mediocre results is our control group”—is based on a response we received from a district superintendent responding to our survey seeking examples of success in blended learning.

Here’s the context: a couple of months ago we launched a survey to find examples of blended learning success in traditional public school districts. We were seeking examples based on student achievement as determined by assessments, course grades, or other similar measures. In the survey we asked if the district had comparison data, for example with a control group.

The Randolph Central School District in western New York State was among those who filled out the survey. In her response to the question about a control group or comparison data, Randolph Superintendent Kimberly Moritz wrote “There is no control group of students who did not take part in blended learning but a decade of mediocre results without blended learning could certainly be considered a control group.”

Randolph’s results since implementing blended learning in its elementary grades have been impressive. Scores on state assessments have improved significantly, and the school’s ranking in a respected regional ranking of schools and districts has risen sharply.

It is likely that we will be profiling Randolph’s efforts and results when we release the first case studies of success with blended learning, so I won’t go into much more detail here. But what we see in Randolph and other districts that we are interviewing for the proof points project is a valuable counterpoint to the headline from a recent report, Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, and the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC). Similar to some other reports from NEPC, the full report includes valuable information that is obscured by the opening tenor of the report, which set the tone for subsequent media reports. The report adds to the body of knowledge demonstrating that the use of education technology alone shows no significant difference in improving student achievement, because how the technology is implemented is so important. (To be clear, as we have discussed previously this finding does not discount the benefits that online courses can provide for student access.)

From the report:

“…there are several ways that these systems [of personalized instruction] can be implemented in the classroom. We are just beginning to experiment with and evaluate different implementation models—and the data show that implementation models matter. How a system is integrated into classroom routines and structures strongly mediates the outcomes for students.” (emphasis added)

That is exactly right, and we see it as we study blended and personalized learning programs in various schools. Administrators in Randolph Central School District appear to have done several things that are consistent with other successful implementations, including that they:

  • Set a clear goal at the start, which was to improve student achievement in elementary school math and reading as measured by state assessments.
  • Figured out how to use digital content and a technology platform to help teachers better understand their students, including using multiple formative assessments throughout the school year to create “fluid ability groups,” ending the “random path” that students had been taking through math throughout the school year and across grades.
  • Created a set of “non-negotiables” about how data would be used in the school to change instruction.
  • Repeated communications about the change to multiple audiences with “boorish redundancy.”

Two facts about this implementation are equally true (and apply to many other blended learning efforts), but stressing one and not the other creates a misleading story:

  1. The use of technology was not nearly enough on its own to create change; yet
  2. The changes could not have been made without using technology.

The same technology could be implemented with very different results. If it was simply added to existing classrooms without thoughtful planning and careful application, it would not likely result in similar gains.

Perhaps every form of educational technology should come with a version of the EPA new car gasoline efficiency statement: your mileage may vary.

State virtual schools play an important role, but some are flat or dwindling

A previous post discussed growing state virtual schools. It also mentioned, without going into detail, that other state virtual schools are staying flat or experiencing declining enrollments. Although state virtual schools are operating in 26 states, in only about half those states are they having an impact at significant scale.

Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is still by far the largest state virtual school in the country; however, its enrollments dropped last year for the first time in its history. It served 377,508 supplemental course completions to 192,820 unique students in SY 2013–14, decreases of 8% and 7% respectively. FLVS is unusual among state virtual schools in that it also offers a full-time option to a large number of students (5,104). Florida SB1514 (2013) changed the funding structure for all schools, traditional and virtual, including FLVS. Previously, districts received full funding for up to six courses for each student, and FLVS received funding for all courses completed by students, even if the FLVS course took the student’s course load beyond one FTE. With the passage of SB1514, students can no longer generate more than one FTE; instead, a student’s FTE is distributed proportionally by the department of education to each district (FLVS is considered a district) for as many courses as a student takes. This created an incentive for districts to encourage students to take in-district traditional or virtual courses as they potentially can lose money if students take any out-of-district courses. The funding changes and an increase in the number of online options available to students at the district level resulted in reduced enrollments for the first time in FLVS history, and an increase in enrollments in the district-run options, including FLVS franchises. The total supplemental course enrollments served in Florida, however, stayed relatively flat after years of double-digit growth.

State virtual school enrollments in Utah and Louisiana dropped due to policy changes as well.

  • Utah’s state virtual school (the Electronic High School) served 4,817 students, a decrease of 117%, in SY 2013–14, while the number of districts offering online courses via the Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP) increased. SOEP is among the first and best-known course choice programs in the country, but the program is still quite small (though growing), serving 3,208 course enrollments (or 6,416 quarter credits) in SY 2013–14, an increase of 236% from the previous year.
  • From 2000 through 2013, Louisiana had a state virtual school, Louisiana Virtual School (LVS). In 2012, Act 2 (HB976) enacted sweeping reforms to public K–12 education, including initial implementation of the Course Choice program, which replaced LVS. With SB179 (2014), Course Choice has been replaced by the Supplemental Course Academy (SCA), through which high school courses are offered. Funding is now through the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), provided as an incremental funding stream in addition to the regular public education funding formula. During the transition from LVS to Course Choice and now SCA, the number of student enrollments in supplemental courses (online and other) decreased by 61%, from 6,414 in SY 2012–13 to 2,479 course enrollments in SY 2013–14.

In addition, some state virtual schools have seen erratic fluctuations in enrollments.

  • The Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) had an enrollment increase of 102% in SY 2012–13, and then a 50% drop in SY 2013–14, possibly due to changes in funding and competition from district programs.
  • Montana Digital Academy had an 18% increase in course enrollments in SY 2013–13 and a 15% decrease in SY 2013–14, primarily due to a change in its credit recovery model that increased course completions but decreased the number of courses students could take at one time.

See the Keeping Pace 2014 annual report for several tables (here and here) and the state virtual school map.

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