A review of course choice policies and programs (part 1)

Course choice programs and policies, which allow students to choose one or more online courses from a provider other than the student’s district of enrollment and have their funding flow to the provider, are a critical and emerging area of focus in digital learning. (Some course choice programs, such as the one in Louisiana, are not limited to online courses, but most are.) The topic has received considerable attention from iNACOL, Digital Learning Now, and other organizations, which usually use the term “course access.” For example, in October 2014 iNACOL released Course Access: Equitable Opportunities for College and Career Ready Students, and Digital Learning Now also has reported extensively on the topic. Here and in a subsequent couple of posts we provide Keeping Pace findings on course choice, including a state-by-state summary.

Course choice fills a critical need for students who do not have access to a wide range of courses—or access to a specific course they are seeking—within their school. Many schools lack advanced courses in math and science, challenging electives, and world language courses. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 50% of high schools offer calculus, 63% offer physics, and 81% offer Algebra II. The situation is worse for minority students, as only 74% of high schools with “the highest percentage of black / Latino students enrollment offer Algebra II.”

Online courses can fill the gaps for these students who are attending schools without a wide range of available courses. In addition, some students prefer to take a course online in order to create flexibility in their schedules, perhaps to meet the time demands of a job, sport, or other extracurricular activity.

Supplemental online courses have filled this need, and in the early days of online learning more than two dozen states created state virtual schools to provide online courses to students in their states. In most cases, state virtual schools are funded based on state appropriations, often augmented by course fees that the state virtual school charges to the student or the student’s enrolling school district.

Two issues exist with this funding approach that has been used for state virtual schools:

  • If the state virtual school is going to meet all student demand for online courses without charging fees, the state appropriation will become very large over time. In those cases state legislators may feel that they are funding students twice—because many students generate a full amount of funding from the state via their district of enrollment, and then in addition take an online course that the state is subsidizing—entirely or in part—via an appropriation to the state virtual school.
  • If the state virtual school is going to meet demand by charging fees, it either falls to the district or the student to pay. If the district pays, then the district usually retains the choice of whether or not to allow the student to take the online course. If the student must pay, then the online course is no longer publicly funded.

Course choice policies and programs address these shortcomings by allowing students to choose an online course, and have some portion of their funding be used to pay the online course provider. The key elements of course choice are the following:

  • The student chooses online courses from one or more providers.
  • The student retains control over the choice. In much the same way that open enrollment laws allow students to choose schools other than those in their district of residence, course choice allows students to choose a single academically appropriate course from outside their district of enrollment.
  • A significant portion of the student’s public education funding flows to the provider of the online course.

Eleven states have some sort of course choice in place as of SY 2014–15, but the states vary in significant ways. Key characteristics of specific course choice policies and programs that vary by state include:

  • Whether students choose courses through a statewide source such as a common online course catalog and registration system, or alternatively have to go through their district of enrollment.
  • The reasons that a district can deny a student’s choice, ranging from situations where the district has many options for denying the student’s choice, to those where few reasons for denial are permitted.
  • The recourse that a student has if the district denies the online course, such as appealing to a state organization.
  • Whether students can choose from a single provider or from multiple providers.
  • The ways in which course providers are vetted by the state prior to offering courses.
  • How the cost of the course is determined, and in particular whether the state sets a cost per course, or the cost is set by the provider (usually capped at the pro-rated amount of the student’s funding).
  • The funding process, including whether funding is completion-based.
  • The tracking and reporting that the state does of providers, online course enrollments, and outcomes.

The next post will compare and contrast course choice programs and policies, and describe several state efforts in this area.

A short coda to earlier private school posts

Several readers have emailed me comments about the previous blog posts (here and here) on digital learning in private schools, suggesting a few additions or clarifications. They have raised some good points that I’ll list below:

  • I included several providers (VHS, Connections, and K12) in one category titled “Providers that are mostly focused on public schools, but also work with private schools and private school students.” The information in that section is accurate, but the wording may suggest that the number of private school students and schools that these organizations serve is smaller than it in fact is. VHS, for example, served 3,050 course enrollments in 163 private schools in school year 2013-14, representing about 15% of its enrollments. In SY 2014-15 its private school enrollments are up by 13% and likely to increase further before the end of the school year. K12, Inc. supports three different private schools—K¹² International Academy, The Keystone School, and The George Washington University Online High School.
  • The OESIS Group began by starting the Online/Blended Education Symposia for Independent Schools several years ago, and now runs the Symposia twice a year (east and west coasts), and is expanding to international symposia as well. In addition, OESIS published its “Blended Learning Surveys Report 2014-2015 on Learning Innovations in Independent Schools.” It’s important to understand the OESIS report as pertaining to independent schools (as is clear in the report), and not widely applicable to all private schools.
  • Sevenstar, which started in 2007, provides a wide range of online courses to Christian schools worldwide. In 2014 Sevenstar served 9,600 course enrollments to middle and high school students from 450 schools across six continents. Almost all students (97%) attend a physical school and take one or more Sevenstar courses to supplement their education. Sevenstar provides facilitators for every course, and also trains partner schools to use their own teachers to teach online classes as well. The variety of courses includes Advanced Placement, core courses, Bible courses, ELL, and online dual credit courses from Christian Colleges.

Valuable findings from study of online courses in Iowa and Wisconsin

Data from the last in-depth national study of the use of online or distance learning courses are now about five years old. (The last national study was Queen, B., & Lewis, L. (2011). Distance education courses for public elementary and secondary school students: 2009–10). In the absence of national data, good state and regional studies such as those released by Michigan Virtual University and the California Learning Resources Network are particularly valuable. In this context the just-released study from REL Midwest, Online course use in Iowa and Wisconsin public high schools: The results of two statewide surveys, is a valuable update on the use of online courses, although it has several important limitations.

Among the key findings are:

  • “Recovering course credit and completing core requirements were among the top academic objectives of online course enrollment in both Iowa and Wisconsin.” In Iowa 71% of high schools that reported enrolling students in online courses used the courses for credit recovery. In Wisconsin 66% of reporting high schools used online credit recovery courses.
  • In addition to credit recovery, other commonly cited reasons for offering online courses are to provide alternative learning environments and courses not otherwise available, and to reduce scheduling conflicts.
  • Online courses are used for core courses (whether for credit recovery or first-time credit) more than for electives.
  • Commonly cited challenges included lack of teacher training, concerns about course quality, and limited access to technology.

Unpacking the findings a bit further reveals additional noteworthy findings:

  • The types of online courses that schools are reporting appear to vary widely. A quarter (26%) of the schools in Iowa and a fifth (21%) of the schools in Wisconsin report that students never had the opportunity to communicate with an online instructor. At the same time, 26% (Iowa) and 46% (Wisconsin) of schools reported that students could communicate with an online instructor in all courses. This suggests that the respondents are reporting on very different types of online courses that are embedded within the data set. I wonder, for example, whether the concerns about course quality and teacher training are significantly different between courses with online teachers and those without.
  • The survey reports on a variety of ways that schools are monitoring student progress in online courses, including final course grades, interim grades or completion, time spent online, and similar. Independent assessments such as state-administered end of course exams, which are suggested by advocates for performance-based funding, do not appear in the data summaries.

Among the limitations of the report are:

  • “Percentage of schools using online courses could not be determined.” This statement is both disappointing and refreshingly honest. The study directly addresses the fact that a survey of this type is likely to have a response bias, with schools that are using online courses more likely to respond than schools not using online courses. In each state at least 90% of responding schools reported using online courses, but the study authors explain why these numbers should not be extrapolated to the entire states. “This report does not include an estimate of the percentage of schools in each state that used online courses, and no attempt was made to examine the data to address why schools chose not to use online courses.”
  • A primary source of online courses in both states is reported as “local school districts.” But this doesn’t make sense unless one believes that it is common for local districts to be creating their online courses. Likely what’s happening is that the district is contracting with a provider, so from the school’s perspective it’s the district providing the course.

Another important limitation is that the study is largely silent on student academic outcomes. The report suggests the following as new research questions (among others):

  • “What are the short- and longer-term academic outcomes of students who enroll in online courses?
  • Are particular methods of implementation associated with better student outcomes?
  • Are particular instructional elements of online courses or instructional activities implemented by online teachers associated with student outcomes?”

Answers to any of these questions would be particularly helpful for the field, and we are encouraged that the authors report that the “REL Midwest Virtual Education Research Alliance is currently investigating a number of these questions.”



The gear is less important than the gal (or guy)

Although the recognition is growing that blended learning isn’t primarily about technology, it’s still not uncommon to hear people suggesting that technology is a critical factor, and perhaps the limiting factor, in the growth of digital learning. Often such views aren’t stated directly in that way. Instead, an educator or advocate will say “if we only had x then blended learning would really take off.” “X” might be free content, better technology platforms, lower-cost devices, or something else. I don’t think the evidence supports this view. Although the spread of innovative technologies will help the field, implementing blended learning does not require the latest technology, nor does it require any technology that doesn’t yet exist.

An analogous situation occurred to me during two recent mountain bike rides in the Arizona desert with two different colleagues. The rides had several elements in common: each was on rough, rocky, challenging terrain; and neither person was using the best, most recent, or most expensive bicycle. But the gear didn’t matter. These colleagues are both strong riders, and each ride was challenging, fun, and rewarding. Neither of them would have thought to say “I’ll go for a ride just as soon as I get a better bike.”

Perhaps because I grew up in suburban New Jersey doing few outdoor activities, as I’ve become involved in these activities I’ve observed with interest the scenes in places where these pursuits are common. I’ve noticed that people tend to fall into two categories: those who need the best, latest, and most expensive gear in order to take on a new trail or a new sport, and those who want to ski, bike, surf, etc., and will use whatever gear is available to them and make it work.

The people in the “make it work” category are almost always more successful than those who think they need better gear. The people in the former category have the desire to do something, and they know the gear is the set of tools they will work with. They use the best gear that they can afford, and it almost always works well enough. They enjoy the activity from the start, and over time understand it better, improve at it, and invest in the gear they need, with better knowledge of the equipment that will be best for them. Those who feel they need the newest and best gear often seem to think that if their equipment was just a little better, they would bike the harder hill, ski the steeper run, catch the bigger wave. While they contemplate how to get better gear, the people in the first group have figured it out with inferior equipment.

In the past few weeks we have been conducting about a dozen interviews with educators who are implementing blended learning. Among their common characteristics is a can-do attitude that suggests that they will use what they have, and make it work. The technology and tools don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be better than the alternative that schools and students currently have. In several cases educators have said that when they started they really didn’t know what they needed. They learned over time, and then when they were ready to make the investment (or convince a school board to make the investment) they were much more knowledgeable.

It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be better than the current situation. And if you wait for the perfect option, you may never get better.

Leading examples of digital learning in private schools

A previous post described characteristics of digital learning in private schools. Below we describe some of the examples of leading private schools and programs, in some cases put into categories.

The Online School for Girls

The Online School for Girls (OSG) is a consortium of 83 schools, including a dozen schools that were founding members. In SY 2013–14, OSG offered seven summer courses and 20 school-year courses; all courses were developed by OSG. It provided 872 semester enrollments to 420 unique students, 90% of whom live in the U.S., with an annual growth rate of 41%. OSG also provides extensive professional development, and had 589 enrollments in professional development programs in SY 2013–14. Both student courses and professional development courses are not limited to member schools; about 5% of student enrollments and 50% of professional development enrollments come from outside of the consortium. OSG is piloting the Online School for Boys during SY 2014–15.

The Global Online Academy

The Global Online Academy is a consortium that offers online courses to 53 member schools representing 24 states, and nine international schools. It was started in 2011. In SY 2013–14 the consortium had about 500 course enrollments, a number that is expected to more than double in SY 2014–15. About 80% of course enrollments are from U.S. schools. Teachers who are employed by consortium schools developed its 32 online courses.

Providers that are mostly focused on public schools, but also work with private schools and private school students

Three providers of online public schools and courses (Connections Education, The Virtual High School, and K12 Inc.) offer courses or schools to private school students. Virtual High School offers supplemental online courses. Connections Education and K12 Inc. operate private online schools that serve both supplemental online courses and full course loads to private school students, and are able to grant diplomas.

Bay Area BlendEd Consortium

The Bay Area BlendEd Consortium is a group of five independent schools in the San Francisco Bay Area working collaboratively to offer 10 blended classes available in school year 2014-15. Developed by teachers from each school, the courses are designed to combine online instruction with several face-to-face meetings throughout the semester. The initial Consortium courses are electives that tap into the unique learning resources available in the Bay Area.

Oaks Christian Online School

Oaks Christian Online School (OCO) provided online courses to about 600 part-time students and 100 fulltime students in SY 2013–14, and is growing at about 35% annually. About 15% of all students live outside of the U.S. OCO develops about 80% of its courses and uses an outside provider for the others, but uses its own teachers for all courses. OCO partners with the Oaks Christian School, although each school issues separate diplomas. Students often take online classes while attending the physical school, or sometimes take a full load of online courses while away from the physical campus for a semester. The physical school uses the same learning management system and some of the same course content as the online school.

Foundations and nonprofit organizations

Foundations and nonprofit organizations are playing an important role in funding and/or helping private schools adopt digital learning. BOLD Day Schools, which is funding five Jewish Day Schools in a shift to blended learning, is a cooperative project of the Affordable Jewish Education Project, The AVI CHAI Foundation, and the Kohelet Foundation. AVI CHAI is also supporting a handful of new schools that are being created based on a blended learning instructional model, and working with existing schools to adopt digital content and tools in the DigitalJLearning Network. Catholic education has a similar effort. The Phaedrus Initiative of Seton Education Partners is working with several schools, including Mission Dolores Academy in San Francisco and St. Therese Academy in Seattle, to reduce costs while improving student outcomes by increasing personalization using digital learning.

For additional information see pages 23-26 of the Keeping Pace 2014 annual report.

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