State policies affect digital learning in districts

This is the final post in a series exploring digital learning in districts, following discussions of how digital learning activity varies by grade level and by district size. We also touched on student’s needs for mentors in computer labs.

In addition to those factors, the level of digital learning activity in school districts is influenced by state policies in several ways, including the following:

  • Student choice allowing students to choose online schools and/or online courses, and have their education funding follow to the school or course provider.
  • Existence and strength of charter school laws.
  • The support of a state virtual school that is enrolling a relatively high percentage of students, such as in Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Idaho.

None of these policies is perfectly predictive of digital learning activity in school districts, but often we see districts responding in one or more ways:

  • Districts may actively work with state virtual schools, and often begin by offering state virtual school courses to district students and then expand to using other providers, or creating their own courses.
  • Districts may feel that they are losing students to online charter schools, and create their own online schools to keep those students.
  • In states that allow students to choose online courses from outside providers, districts may increase their own online course offerings either for their own students, or to list the courses on statewide course catalogs for students across the state.

Comparing Pennsylvania to Maryland is illustrative. The two share a long state line, and each has one or more major cities (Philadelphia, Baltimore), extensive suburbs, and expansive rural areas. But both our research for Keeping Pace and a report we did for the Maryland Department of Education several years ago suggest that much more digital learning activity is occurring in Pennsylvania than in Maryland. In Pennsylvania many districts and ISDs are creating online schools and courses because they feel they are losing funding to online charter schools. Maryland does not have policies that support statewide online schools, nor does it have a well-funded state virtual school. Although the passage of Maryland’s HB1362 in 2010 authorized school districts to establish a virtual public school subject to the approval of the state superintendent, as of July 2014 no districts had requested approval for a virtual school. Some districts, including in Baltimore and Howard County, have digital learning options, but overall these options are limited compared to those in Pennsylvania.

Other examples exist as well. The growth of the Florida Virtual School to the point that it has served more than two million course completions across the state in its history appears to have spurred the legislature and individual districts to create a variety of district-led digital learning options. Michigan has long supported a state virtual school, more recently added online and blended charter schools, is currently implementing course choice, and has many districts offering and/or creating online courses. Arizona has policies that support online learning within both charter schools and district programs, serving students full-time or part-time.

A lack of data on district-level digital learning activity makes it hard to demonstrate that these policies are spurring action. But even with the caution that correlation doesn’t imply causation, it appears that the shaded states on the Keeping Pace maps showing student access to online schools, courses, and course choice generally have more district-level activity than the non-shaded states.

Mentoring versus monitoring

Our discussion of digital learning in districts (see here and here) touches on how a common digital learning scenario in high schools involves the use of online courses taken by students in a computer lab. The students may be taking online courses for credit recovery, because they wish to take a course that is not available in the school, to address scheduling conflicts, or for other reasons.

Usually these schools have an adult in the computer lab with the students. The role of that adult can vary in important ways, however. I was reminded of this fact while listening to a panel discussion during Michigan Virtual University’s online learning symposium last week. Julie Howe, Online Learning Coordinator at Michigan’s Three Rivers High School, made this point very succinctly when she said:

“Students (taking online courses in a computer lab) need a mentor, not a monitor.”

Julie went on to explain the difference. Monitors determine that students are in attendance, and watch to make sure that students are not actively ignoring their online courses. Mentors take an active role in students’ learning. They don’t necessarily need to be subject matter experts. Instead, they show an effective interest in students, find out where students are having problems, and suggest strategies for success.

We have seen similar differences between monitors and mentors in schools that we have visited. In Amphitheater Public Schools in Arizona, for example, we interviewed a mentor who worked in a computer lab for students recovering credit. We also watched as she engaged with every student in the room at some point during the period. In many cases the students came up to her, and it was clear that they valued her opinions and knowledge. She initiated a conversation with the students who didn’t come up to her, to find out how they were doing. Based on the interactions it was clear that she wasn’t doing this simply because we were there watching.

We’ve written before that most students need personal attention from teachers, but never captured it as succinctly as Julie’s statement does. Students need a mentor, not a monitor.

Digital learning varies by district size

A previous post discussed digital learning within traditional public schools, and explored differences in digital learning in high schools compared to elementary schools. Our research suggests that digital learning also varies by district size.

About 14,000 school districts exist across the country, but the distribution of district size is characterized by a long tail of very small districts.

  • Nearly half of all districts (47%) have fewer than 1,000 students, and these collectively account for only 5.5% of all students. Many of these districts serve rural communities.
  • The largest 2% of districts (those that serve more than 25,000 students) educate 35% of all students.
  • The remaining districts (51%), ranging in size between 1,000 and 25,000 students, educate 60% of all students.

Small districts are typically less significant users of digital content and tools than larger districts. The smallest districts are often in remote areas, and may have little or no digital learning due to Internet bandwidth constraints. Remote districts that are in states that invested in video conferencing often use it instead of online content. In small districts with good Internet access, online courses are often an important method by which the district augments the limited number of courses offered by the district’s own schools. Small districts are unlikely to develop their own content or have their own teachers instructing online courses, and therefore tend to use online courses and teaching that is offered by private providers or state virtual schools. These districts are also less likely than larger districts to be using skills software for math and ELA courses in elementary and middle schools. Because the smallest districts have few full-time district level administrators, it is rare for them to have someone who is dedicated to managing digital learning across the district, and the provision of devices and infrastructure (if being done) often falls to someone with less experience and expertise than a person in a similar position in a larger district.

Most mid-size districts have a wider variety of digital content and tools available to students, but often still do not have the full range of digital instruction found in larger districts. They may offer one type of digital content to elementary students, and have some online courses available for middle and high school students, particularly for credit recovery. Districts in this category that have multiple middle schools and multiple high schools may be moving low-enrollment courses online because they have enough students in the district, but not enough students in each school, to fill a course. Mid-size and larger districts often have district-level administrators and staff focused on curriculum and instruction, technology, and other areas that are elements of digital learning. Districts of this size that adopt digital learning as a key strategy are able to dedicate a person—or more—to the effort; this person may coordinate the acquisition of content, devices, professional development, and the other building blocks of digital instruction. These districts would also be more apt to have their own teachers developing digital content and courses, and teaching online courses, although they are likely using some vendor-provided online courses and teaching as well.

The great majority of large districts—those that are roughly 25,000 students and higher—are using some digital content and tools. Because districts of this size have multiple schools that tend to have some autonomy in their content and technology selections, district administrators may not readily know the extent of usage of digital content and tools across the entire district. The district may have a coordinated digital learning strategy that includes, for example, a virtual high school and a digitally-focused middle school, and also have many other digital content providers and devices being used in individual schools with little district-level coordination. In addition, these districts may have an alternative education school or program that is using some online courses for students who are not attending a traditional school during the full extent of regular school days and hours. Large districts almost certainly have district-wide instructional and student information platforms, and will have some teachers developing course content within the system.

Although district size and level of digital learning activity are somewhat correlated, we find digitally advanced districts of all sizes. These forward-thinking districts have multiple digital options that often include the creation of and/or provision of supplemental online courses for credit recovery and original credit, a virtual school for students who wish to take all of their courses online, digital content for students in classrooms in middle schools and elementary schools, a way to provide devices (tablets or computers) to all students, extensive professional development for teachers, and support mechanisms in place to assist teachers and instructional leaders with the shift to integrating digital content and tools into classrooms.

Although many districts have been using digital content and tools for years, most are still in the early stages of creating or scaling dedicated online or blended programs. They are also just beginning to implement major changes in their instructional models to incorporate a significant portion of digital learning in their core instructional programs.

Digital learning activity in traditional school districts

In my last post I discussed why we feel that the word “digital” is better than either “online” or “blended” alone to describe the education landscape as of late 2014. Much activity has moved from state virtual schools and statewide charter schools to traditional school districts, and in these districts digital learning has many different permutations. This shift is apparent in a number of ways, and from numerous sources. Providers of digital tools and content are selling mostly to districts. Funders are increasingly supporting and studying digital learning implementations in traditional public schools, and media reports reflect these changes. In addition, the large majority of students (about 84%) attend traditional public schools, as opposed to attending charter schools or private schools, or being home schooled.

But researchers lack solid numbers to quantify what is occurring in digital learning in traditional schools. In only a handful of states (e.g. CA, FL, and MI) has there been an effort to track digital learning activity in schools across the state—and researchers in those states are forthcoming about issues with the data that call into question the level of accuracy of the current numbers. The last federal survey that provided useful information about digital learning across all states collected distance education data from school year 2009-10 and was published in 2011. (Distance Education Courses for Public Elementary and Secondary School Students: 2009–10; NCES 2012-008).

A further challenge in quantifying digital learning activity is that so many permutations of digital learning exist. The term “blended learning,” for example, often describes something very different in elementary schools compared to high schools. We see the differences in digital learning activity between high schools and elementary schools when we look in more detail at digital content, platforms, devices, and teaching.

High schools have the widest and deepest range of digital options, which may include any or all of the following:

  • Online courses that include an online teacher are most common at the high school level. These may be focused on one type of student (e.g. advanced courses or credit recovery) or may be wide ranging (e.g. core courses). These courses are often coordinated at the district level, provided by a district virtual school, and taken by students from multiple schools across the district. In some cases the district offers enough online courses to provide a student’s entire education online for hospitalized, homebound, pregnant, incarcerated, or other students in similar uncommon circumstances.
  • Credit recovery courses that may have an online teacher, or may have a site-based facilitator who serves as the teacher of record, are a common starting point for high schools offering online courses. The district may coordinate credit recovery options but have them available at multiple high schools so that students at each school can access the courses.
  • An alternative education or independent study program may exist for students who wish to pursue their education in a setting other than a traditional high school. These programs usually do not follow a regular daily schedule, but include an onsite component and an online component.
  • Digital content in addition to full courses, and digital platforms such as learning management systems, are often used in classrooms to augment courses that are offered on a traditional daily and semester schedule. Content may be acquired from an outside provider, or developed by teachers for their own courses.

In elementary schools the use of digital tools and content is usually classroom-based, and typically used in math (mostly) and ELA. Other than in charter schools, most elementary schools deploy these tools and content within traditional classrooms and daily class schedules. They often seek digital content that is adaptive and can identify students’ learning challenges, and report them to the teacher. These schools are finding that in many cases the capabilities of data creation and presentation exceed the ability of teachers—many of whom became teachers in a pre-digital era—to use the data effectively. (Of course one might also say that teachers find that the data are not well presented. In any case, the capabilities of data creation and presentation systems often exceed their usage.) Because the focus is often on content that is adaptive, few instances exist of teachers creating their own online content at the elementary school level.

Middle school digital instruction contains some elements of both elementary schools and high schools, partly because of the transitional ages of their students. Sixth grade students, if they are using digital learning, are most likely to be using skill-based software; 8th grade students may be taking high school courses online in order to advance their learning trajectory, particularly in math.

In Keeping Pace 2014 we summarized these findings in the table below (click on the image to increase size).

digital options

In our next post we will look at how digital learning activity varies by the size of districts.

 

Online and blended learning is now “digital”

Some long-time Keeping Pace readers have been asking us about the new title of the 2014 annual report: Keeping Pace with K–12 Digital Learning. The phrase “digital learning” has replaced the reference to “online and blended learning” in the title of previous recent reports. This seemingly small word change signifies a significant evolution in the landscape, and in the way we are analyzing and reporting on it. A bit of history should be helpful in understanding our original focus, and our reason for changing.

Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning was first published in 2004. At that time, we chose to focus on the young and disruptive K–12 teacher-led online learning segment, and not the broader use of education technology. In 2004, K–12 teacher-led online courses were almost exclusively provided by state virtual schools delivering supplemental online courses, and charter schools where students took all of their courses online. A small but growing number of school districts were also beginning to establish full-time online programs accessible to students regionally and across individual states.

Subsequent years saw two key changes. First, a growing amount of online learning activity developed inside individual schools and districts, as an ever-increasing number of students were taking online courses from within their own districts instead of from state virtual schools and virtual charter schools. Concurrently, a second shift was taking place. Schools were beginning to combine an online or digital content component with regular face-to-face classroom instruction in new and varied ways. In many cases, the classroom configuration and the bell schedule were unchanged. In some cases, the instructional approach and learning spaces were reconfigured to take advantage of the benefits of combining digital content and instructional management software with face-to-face teacher and student collaboration.

In 2012, in recognition of these changes and the growing visibility of blended learning activity, the report’s title changed to Keeping Pace with K–12 Online and Blended Learning. This was not a change that we took lightly, for several reasons. The evidence showed that online learning, when done well, was transformative because it offered new options to students. Students without access to a wide range of courses in their regular schools could now take the additional courses online. Students who could not attend a physical school could now enroll in an online school. These online options did not necessarily need to be better or more attractive than their classroom counterparts, because they weren’t replacing or competing with existing classroom courses. To use the terminology created by Clayton Christensen, online courses and schools primarily served the needs of non-consumers–students who did not have access to the course or school they were seeking as the best fit for their needs.

Blended learning’s goal differs in that it does seek to replace existing classes already offered in the school by improving upon the existing traditional classroom experience. From the outset, research and analysis of blended learning activities has been challenging. If one defines blended learning as any combination of digital learning and face-to-face instruction, then blended learning implementations have infinite permutations, making it extremely difficult to identify and study these activities in all but a small number of newly formed, stand-alone, blended schools or classrooms. Organizations such as the Clayton Christensen Institute have made significant contributions toward creating blended learning definitions and categories of blended models, but while this has been highly useful, there is little consistency among the many interpretations of these definitions by schools for their programs.

To further complicate matters—and create a need to expand the research—the broader digital learning landscape continues to shift in many ways, including the exploding growth of new digital learning technologies and products, the changing and merging ways these resources are used, and shifting levels of usage within the various sectors of K–12 education.

With these changes in mind, in 2014 we are continuing to report on categories that we have described in the past, such as state virtual schools and online charter schools. In addition, the report looks in more depth (compared to past years) at digital learning activity in school districts and in charter schools, particularly at the cases that are not fully online.

The next blog post will explore Keeping Pace research into digital learning activity in school districts.

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