New York Times reports HS students taking “more” online courses; but article includes no data

The headline is attention-grabbing: How High Schoolers Spent Their Summer: Online, Taking More Courses.

But the article is disappointing because it has no data; instead it consists of a series of anecdotes about New York-area students taking massive open online courses (MOOCs) in order to bolster their college applications—and often not completing them. Stories such as the one about the student taking online courses while traveling with his family around Italy are mildly interesting but would have been more noteworthy five or ten years ago than they are today.

The Times report tells us that of the millions of students taking MOOCs, “an untold number” are “teenagers looking for courses they high schools do not offer” and seeking to “nab one more exploit that might impress the college of their dreams.” One college admissions director reports “more and more students who apply to us mention they’ve taken online courses of various kinds.” But also, “admissions officials cautioned that MOOCs are not necessary for already overburdened students, and that the number of applicants listing them at this point is still relatively small.”

The risk is that this story will be reported as if it is based on data instead of a few anecdotes.

The right, and wrong, questions to ask about blended learning effectiveness

District of Columbia Public Schools is among the districts that we have profiled in our Proof Points profiles, which is why the blog post titled Some DC schools are betting that personalization can fix education caught my attention.

The overall post is informative and well written, but in this sentence it makes a common error of conflation that undermines its larger point:

“And while DCPS has recorded some encouraging results with blended learning, research on its efficacy in general has been inconclusive.”(Links were in the original.)

I commented on the post, and my comments have been added there. I’m including a lightly edited version of those comments here, because the view expressed in the post is so common—and therefore creates a teachable moment for those interested in how blended learning should be evaluated.

My comment:

I’m part of the research team that created the Proof Points profile that was linked in the “encouraging results” part of that sentence. Our research showed the ways in which DC Public Schools has implemented a successful blended learning program, and the ways in which the district has tracked student outcomes data.

The key question around the use of technology in education should never be “does it work” in general terms–which is the mistake that’s made in several of the studies that you link to, including the Hechinger Report which suggests that blended learning results are “inconclusive.”

The long history of studies of all sorts of technologies in education show that technology alone isn’t sufficient to create change. But properly applied technology, with planning that targets measurable educational goals, sufficient attention to supporting teachers with professional development, and consistent district leadership, can create improved results.

DC Public Schools is implementing blended learning in thoughtful ways, and the district is conducing extensive analyses to better understand what is working and what’s not working, to build on the successes and learn from the failures.

The evidence shows that DC has positive results from its blended learning program. That doesn’t mean that blended learning is going to work in all instances, so it doesn’t negate the reports you link to from Hechinger, Gates, EdWeek, and other sources. But your blog is about DC, and it seems to me that the post underplays DC Public Schools’ successful efforts while overplaying the general concerns raised by others about technology in education. A casual reader might come to a mistaken conclusion about the value of technology in personalizing learning in DC.

To be clear–some concerns are legitimate, because there are many poor implementations of technology in education. But the evidence strongly suggests that DC is, in many ways, an excellent example of best practices in the implementation of blended learning.

(End of the comments I submitted to the blog.)

To repeat: the question regarding effectiveness of blended learning (or other flavors of education technology) shouldn’t be the general “does it work?” The question should be “is it working in this particular school/district/program?” And when evaluators can answer that question in enough circumstances, the picture of what works in blended learning, broadly speaking, will become increasingly clear.





Update on post-secondary online learning reciprocity

An earlier post explored The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA). As explained on its website, SARA is encouraging agreements “among its member states and U.S. territories that establishes comparable national standards for interstate offering of postsecondary distance-education courses and programs. It is intended to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by postsecondary institutions based in another state.”

That blog post, written in May 2015, concluded by noting that “it’s worth watching what happens with SARA.” Based on news since then, it SARA appears to be growing.

  • At the end of June the Rutland Herald reported that Vermont was joining SARA. (The Herald article is paywalled; synopsis is here.)
  • In mid-July, University Business reported that “Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee were approved by the Southern Regional Education Board this week to join the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA).”
  • Later in July, Illinois became the 28th state overall and the ninth state in the Midwest to enter the compact, joining Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Ohio.

As has been reported in several of the articles linked above, the effort is being funded by the Lumina Foundation primarily (with a $3 million grant) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($200,000). Although it’s still unclear whether the agreements will result in meaningful changes to students, the fact that more than half of all states have signed on seems to be a significant development.

How districts can make the transition to blended teaching easier

This blog post was co-written with my former Evergreen colleague, Stacy Hawthorne of Hawthorne Education.

The previous blog post (The J curve describes why the transition to blended teaching is hard) generated some conversations about what schools that are implementing blended learning can do to help teachers with the transition. A participant at the Idaho conference that spurred my thinking on this topic raised a similar point when she tweeted “Teachers who engage are the key! How to do this with online options is the question.”

One approach that some successful districts have taken to working with teachers undergoing the transition is to emphasize coaching and mentoring as opposed to relying solely on traditional professional development. These districts have come to recognize that effective professional development is a mindset and not an event. Most traditional professional development involves a course of study that teachers go through. Often, the PD reviews the technology tools; the better PD options help teachers with online or blended learning pedagogy. But in either case, the PD course often ends before teachers have truly become comfortable teaching in the blended environment.

To address this issue, some schools and districts have a formal coaching program for teachers, so that as they are teaching they have somewhere to turn for help with everything from simple technology questions to complex issues regarding how best to change their instructional approach. Some districts have created a blended learning instructional position, and this person became the expert who worked directly with teachers throughout their learning process. In some cases, such as in Crown Point, Indiana, the online and blended learning specialist did not have much previous digital learning experience and went through the PD with other teachers, but was given additional dedicated time to become the expert in the district. In other cases, such as Tift County Schools in Georgia, the district brought in someone from the outside to coach teachers. Professional coaches are able to bring in experience and resources from outside of the district and are often able to have more honest conversations with teachers because the coaches are not a part of the district hierarchy. We’ve seen districts where administrators try to work as coaches and there is often fear in the minds of some teachers wondering if their evaluation will be impacted if they struggle. Dana Spurlin, Tift County Schools Instructional Technology Director, says “having professional blended learning coaches has helped our teachers try new ideas and become better advocates for themselves as learners.”

Regardless of whether a district uses professional coaches or creates an in-house position, the key is for the coach to build a relationship with the teacher. The transformation to digital learning is a change for most teachers. Many pre-service teacher preparation programs haven’t adjusted to reflect blended and online pedagogies that schools are using. This means that both experienced and new teachers are likely to be experiencing blended learning for the first time. Change is messy, and the transition to digital learning is no exception. Having a coach that you can trust is a huge asset in the change process. The J-curve reminds us that things may get tougher before the digital transformation is complete. Ongoing coaching instead of, or along with, professional development gives teachers the support and resources that they need to navigate the change process and become successful online and blended teachers. NFL coach Pete Carroll once said “each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.” This same view holds true for teachers.

The J curve describes why the transition to blended teaching is hard

Earlier this week I presented at the Idaho School Administrators conference, and had a lively discussion about the ways in which, and reasons why, helping teachers transition from teaching in a traditional classroom to a blended learning environment can be so difficult.

Some readers will be familiar with the transition being challenging because the effort is time-consuming and intensive, the time required exceeds typical professional development sessions which are often limited to a day or two, and PD offerings often focus on the tools instead of the pedagogy.

But there’s another reason as well, as explained by Dr. Christopher Pagliarulo, Director of Instruction & Assessment at the University of California Davis, in an interview with Phil Hill of e-Literate:

“It takes a lot of work to transform your instruction, and it’s also a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. When you change out of a habitual behavior, they call it the “J curve”. Immediately, your performance goes down, your attitude and affect goes down, and it takes somebody there to help you through both that process—and we need expertise, so there’s a major resource deficit that we have now.”

Dr. Pagliarulo is discussing instructional changes at the post-secondary level, but the same issues apply to K-12 teachers as well. Experienced teachers are comfortable with their current teaching methods. Changing to a new approach is not only going to require substantial effort, but it is also likely to result in an initial reduction in results and satisfaction—that’s the initial part of the “J”. Only after time, effort, and support does the teacher move through the initial downward part of the curve, and reach the upward portion, which results in improved student outcomes and, often, increased satisfaction among teachers.

In addition, in new blended learning programs, the school may also be addressing issues related to bandwidth, online content, student expectations, and so on. Therefore the teacher isn’t only experiencing her own individual frustrations, but also additional challenges that aren’t entirely in her control.

Reaching the upper part of the J curve eventually results in improved student outcomes.  But the initial steps aren’t easy, and anticipating the initial drop of the J curve will help teachers get through it.

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