New York state online learning recommendations show promise

The Final Report — Findings and Recommendations of the New York State Online Learning Advisory Council includes two aspects that are promising for the future of online learning.

Both are contained in the Council’s first recommendation, which is “that the Legislature and Governor allocate $100 million to support multi-year professional development grants. These grants will support both planning and implementation to expand development of instructional skills using online tools in classrooms, and online course availability and capacity.”

This is promising for two reasons.

First, the growth of online learning within traditional school districts is going to require investments of time and resources, both of which ultimately equate to dollars. (The possibility that online learning may be less expensive in some cases, and/or over time, does not change the fact that the shift to online learning by public schools will require an initial investment.) The fact that the report calls for an investment of $100 million suggests that the state’s financial condition is fairly strong, and that the possibility exists of investing in an initiative to support online learning. That’s not to say that the state will ultimately fund the initiative at that level—or at all—but in my experience similar state commissions tend to have an idea of what the budget situation is, to avoid making a recommendation that is immediately ignored because it is so far from what is politically or financially feasible.

If the fact that the report calls for investing in online learning is positive, what the Council chooses to prioritize for increased spending is even more so: it suggests spending on professional development. Essentially every experienced educator and advocate for online learning realizes that professional development for teachers and administrators is a key element of success. Yet financial requests usually start with devices, connectivity, or content; if they include professional development at all it is usually secondary. For example, earlier this week I spoke with several people working on digital learning planning in North Carolina (a topic I will return to in upcoming blog posts), and they lamented the fact that there is such a large need for professional development, but it’s far easier to ask the legislature for money for more tangible purchases. New York appears to have moved beyond that issue, and the Council has made a smart request.



Poudre Global Academy continues to show blended learning success

Our 2015 Proof Points project, which we completed in partnership with the Christensen Institute, looked at examples of blended learning success in traditional school districts. Christensen tells us that the series was among their most downloaded publications of the year, and the profiles received considerable media attention as well.

The project scope did not include any follow-up with the schools to determine if their success would continue beyond the data that were originally reported, so we were pleased when one of the profiled schools contacted us to report their latest test scores. Heather Hiebsch, principle of the Poudre Global Academy (PGA) of the Poudre School District in Colorado, told us about the schools scores on the new PARCC assessment, given in spring 2015:

PGA students out-performed state averages in 16/18 assessments administered, with a very strong showing in middle school math!  PGA students were among the highest averages re: all PARCC states.  This is a wonderful accomplishment because we now have ongoing data for both individual achievement and individual growth.”

Our profile of Poudre had focused on student growth based on the Colorado state assessment, which is the primary measure that PGA was reporting at the time. As Heather said in her email, the addition of the PARCC scores shows students doing well in both growth and proficiency. Congratulations to the PGA team for their continued success.



How hype trumps reality: an online learning cautionary tale from ASU

Why do some fads develop, become prominent, and then slowly fade with many people barely noticing that the fad is no longer a thing? One reason is that news outlets tend to prominently cover launches, reporting on and repeating the promise of new technologies, products, courses, etc. But if the new “thing” doesn’t pan out as planned, the ensuing media coverage tends to be much smaller than the launch reporting. The average person remembers the launch and the promise, and doesn’t see the reality-based follow-up.

Here’s an account of one such situation showing how this phenomenon occurs.

In April 2015, Arizona State University announced the creation of the Global Freshman Academy, which would provide a path for any student to take introductory courses as free online MOOCs, receive credit for passing the courses, and then have the option to enroll in ASU. The university partnered with EdX, one of the major MOOC providers.

“Leave your G.P.A., your SATs, your recommendations at home,” said Anant Agarwal, the chief executive of edX. “If you have the will to learn, just bring your Internet connection and yourself, and you can get a year of college credit.”

That quote presents an exciting vision, and numerous high-profile media outlets picked up the story. Here are four of the top six news articles showing up within the first 10 Google news search returns for the search term “ASU global freshman academy” within the date range of April 1-30, 2015:

  1. Promising Full College Credit, Arizona State University Offers Online Freshman Program (New York Times)
  1. Arizona State University Offers Full Freshman Online Curriculum: School seeks to expand student base and improve college attendance (Wall Street Journal)
  1. Arizona State University to offer freshman year online, for credit (Washington Post)
  1. Arizona State, edX to offer entire freshman year of college online (Fortune)

It was an exciting and well-publicized launch. But more recently comes word, via Inside Higher Ed, that “Less than 1 percent of the learners in the massive open online course partnership between Arizona State University and edX are eligible to earn credit for their work, according to enrollment numbers from the inaugural courses.” More than 34,000 students registered for the MOOCs, and 323 are eligible to earn credits.

ASU calls the outcome a “positive first step,” and it may well be so. ASU has been innovative and dedicated to the idea of providing access to a world-class university to a wide range—and large numbers—of students from a variety of ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. This is a laudable goal and ASU should not be faulted if some of its efforts don’t immediately create positive results.

But the point of this post isn’t about what ASU is doing and whether it’s been successful—this post is highlighting how media reports generate hype cycles. Now that the first results are in, here are the top ten results of a current Google news search* for “ASU global freshman academy”—the exact same search as mentioned above, but with no date range specified:

  • Only two of the ten articles, including the top hit, are about the low completion rate. The sources are Education Dive and Times Higher Education.
  • Seven articles are about the Academy generally and pre-date the release of the completion numbers. They are all positive and still emphasize the pre-launch hype.
  • One article is about the Georgia Tech masters degree that is built around online courses; the article mentions ASU’s Academy.

This is how a wide range of people—from the general public to legislators and members of education boards—get the impression that MOOCs are having far more impact than they actually are. The announcements of beginnings, and predictions of success, are headlined in the major media outlets. The stories of promises as-yet unfulfilled are relegated to the back pages and the minor outlets, if they are published at all.

*I did the Google searches about a week ago, and the results are slightly different now—but the same pattern holds.


Profiles of online learning in school districts

Several previous posts have explored key data points in the overall K-12 online learning landscape,and examples from specific states and districts. Here we add information drawn from some of the many profiles that we published in the report to further describe some prominent examples of online learning. These are all condensed versions; for more detail see the full report. Note that we do not suggest that these districts are representative of school district activity generally; in fact these are among the districts with some of the larger and longer-established programs.

Clark County School District and the Nevada Learning Academy

Clark County School District (CCSD) is the fifth largest school district in the U.S., with about 345,000 students, and unique in that it serves 71% of all Nevada public school students-a far larger percentage of the state total than any other district. Among the district’s offerings is the Nevada Learning Academy (NVLA), the primary provider of both supplemental and full-time online learning opportunities for grades 6–12. Launched in fall 2004 as the Clark County Virtual High School, it combined with the Academy of Individualized Studies program, expanded online courses for middle schools in the district, and became NVLA. In addition to NVLA, CCSD high schools and middle schools use supplemental online courses from an outside vendor, taught by CCSD teachers. CCSD had 46,957 students take one or more online courses in SY 2014–15 and summer 2015, plus another 955 full-time online students enrolled at NVLA.

NVLA provides a variety of online options including a middle school hybrid model, where full time online students come to campus two days a week for teacher led-instruction and project-based learning, and two competency-based online programs for high school students. NVLA’s Credit by Exam gives high school students an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge equivalent to high school course work through an examination. During the 2014–15 SY, NVLA conducted 1,691 Credit by Exam assessments; the most common subject was Spanish.

The NVLA independent study program offers high school students flexibility within a mastery-based system. Students combine online content and instruction with proctored end-of-unit assessments until they complete the course. This allows for a shortened timeframe for course completion, typically 6 to 9 weeks. All online classrooms have highly qualified teachers in the subject area. In addition, students have access to a licensed teacher who acts a guide or coach at their assigned proctored testing site.

CCSD is also creating district-wide online courses for use outside of NVLA. During the 2014–15 SY, 1,439 students were enrolled in CCSD District-created online courses at their neighborhood schools, using site-based teachers.

Frederick County Virtual School

The Frederick County Virtual School (FCVS) has been providing a variety of online options to Frederick County Public School students since 2007. Frederick County is a mid-sized system in Maryland with about 41,000 students in 66 schools. FCVS had 920 high school students take online courses in a hybrid format during the 2014–15 SY, with another 430 in summer 2015.

The Frederick County Virtual School had 50 online teachers in the 2014–15 SY, all from the Frederick County school system. FCVS provides a variety of online programs targeted for specific student audiences, including:

  • Virtual Outside of School (VOS) provides supplemental online courses for students to complete coursework outside of the school day with an online teacher of record guiding the learning. VOS students are required to attend one face-to-face session once each month over a 15-week schedule.
  • Flexible Evening High School (FEHS) is a rolling enrollment program (start dates monthly) that provides additional face-to-face support, meeting two nights each week. FEHS is an alternative to the comprehensive campus-based learning environment.
  • Virtual After School (VAS) and Virtual During School (VDS) programs are focused on credit recovery. VAS students meet with teachers 2–3 times per week, where VDS students meet with a mentor every day. The VAS and VDS courses may last the entire school year.
  • Partially Online Summer Session (POSS) is a summer-only, open enrollment program intended for independent and self-motivated learners and requires face-to-face sessions once each week for six weeks.
  • Site-Based Summer Session (SBSS) is a summer-only credit recovery program with set start and end dates where school staff identifies student participation. Students meet in face-to-face morning sessions four times each week for six weeks.

FCVS also offers the online College Exam Preparation (CEP) program for students planning to take college entrance and Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

Gwinnett Online Campus

Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) is a large suburban school district outside of Atlanta, Georgia, with approximately 173,000 students. The Gwinnett Online Campus is an accredited school within GCPS that had 5,124 course enrollments during the 2014–15 SY, plus an additional 2,397 enrollments over the summer of 2015. Gwinnett Online Campus (GOC) also enrolled over 500 full-time students in grades 4–12 in SY 2014–15, all GCPS resident students.

The instructional program for students in grades 4–9 offers a blended approach in which supplemental online students can attend Learning Labs on campus two mornings per week or login from home to join the live class sessions. Students meet face-to-face with their online teacher once per week. High school students taking online courses are able to come to campus once per week to receive additional curricular support. Students enrolled in science courses also attend live science labs every three weeks. About 65% of course enrollments during the 2014–15 SY were in the core subject areas of math, English language arts, science and social studies.

Gwinnett Online Campus students score above the average on district developed assessments in the majority of subject areas across grades 4–12. All state assessments and final exams are taken on campus in proctored settings.

Bend-La Pine Schools Online

Bend-La Pine is the 6th largest school district in Oregon, with 28 schools and about 17,100 students in grades K–12. It also has a comprehensive online program, Bend-La Pine Schools Online, which serves about 3,000 students per year with full-time and part-time online course options. The program began ten years ago by offering online courses to high school students across the district. The program has grown and is in its fourth year of providing a far wider range of full-time and part-time online courses for students who may access the courses from a district school, or from home. The district partners with Fuel Education, which provides online courses and state certified teachers who teach the courses. The options are in four categories, all of which serve students at all grade levels:

  • Online courses for students who are enrolled full-time in district schools (in Oregon, fulltime is 4 or more classes). This is the largest single category, with about 2,000 students taking online courses and 5–7 courses at a physical school. Most of these students are in high school and about 75% enroll in core, standard, honors or AP original credit courses. About 25% use credit recovery courses. The district allows students to take as many online courses as they would like, at district expense, even though each student’s funding is capped at 1 FTE.
  • Full-time online school for students who take courses from home. The full-time online school has about 400 students, about half of whom are high school students. The number of elementary students in the full-time online school is growing rapidly—likely because of the addition of a local, district-employed K–5 teacher who provides significant enrichment.
  • Part-time online enrollment combined with part-time homeschool. This is a smaller category, but one that the district expects to grow. Oregon law is unusual in that it allows students to enroll in a public school for between one and three courses; in these cases the school receives part-time funding for the student that is equal to half of the funding for a full-time student. This funding mechanism allows the district to offer online courses to students who are also homeschooled.
  • Part-time online enrollment combined with part-time on-site schooling for K–12. This is the smallest category, but is also growing.

Bend-La Pine Schools Online is a program of the district, not a school. Students are officially considered to be enrolled in one of the physical schools, and may take part in extracurricular activities

Online learning in public schools: data from states and districts

(The following is excerpted and slightly adapted from Keeping Pace 2015. For all graphics below, click on the image to see a larger version.)

The previous post discussed online learning activity in school districts, using information that Keeping Pace researchers had gathered from state virtual schools and other suppliers. Our understanding of the state of digital learning in public schools is bolstered by reports out of a few states that we cited, and a review of activity in a dozen districts.

Washington State has been tracking and reporting on online learning activity in more depth than most other states. The Online Learning Annual Report from Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reports on student motivation for taking supplemental online courses as reported by course registrars. The graphic below applies only for supplemental online course use and does not reflect the reasons full-time online students choose that option.

The data from Washington demonstrate how public schools offer a range of online options to meet student needs. In more than a quarter of all cases the online course was not available at the school, and in about 40% of cases the course was cited as helping the student to graduate, often by allowing the student to make up a previously failed class. In other cases, online courses helped alleviate scheduling conflicts, or were perceived as being a better fit for a student’s learning style than a traditional course.

We also looked at supplemental online course usage in a variety of school districts, ranging in size from small and medium to large communities, representing a total of over one million students. Most of these districts also enroll full-time students, but these are typically a very small percentage as compared to supplemental courses.

Of the twelve districts sampled, the majority of school and district supplemental online course enrollments are in high school grades 9–12, although there is growing activity in the middle schools. The use of online options in elementary school remains focused on the integration of online content and technology in the classroom. Based on the district programs studied, almost two-thirds (65%) of the online courses were taken by high school juniors and seniors. Summer 2015 enrollments accounted for 17% of the total course enrollments.

The district data also demonstrate the types of courses being taken by students. Core subjects of math, science, language arts and social studies combine for about 50% of course enrollments, among the districts studied. Electives made up the largest single category (when core subjects are divided into their separate categories), accounting for 33% of all course enrollments, with career and technical education at 7% and heath and physical education tallying 6% of the total.

District size can have implications for online learning. Smaller districts may have limitations in the availability of online learning delivery capability and/or Internet bandwidth constraints, but are often active users of online learning. In small districts with good Internet access, online courses are often an important method by which the district augments the smaller number of courses offered by the district’s own schools.

Larger districts with greater resources often take a more active role in developing online learning for schools in their districts. They are more likely to host their own learning management system, and internally create a portion of their course content. Large districts often use their own teachers to support online students, where mid- and small-sized districts are more likely to take advantage of online instruction from suppliers.

Small districts are unlikely to develop their own content or support a wide range of technology tools. Because the smallest districts have fewer full-time district level administrators, it is rare for them to have someone dedicated to managing digital learning across the district, with online learning responsibilities often falling to someone with less experience and expertise than a person in a similar position in a larger district.

Mid-size districts are more apt to have their own teachers developing digital content and courses, and teaching online courses, although most are using third-party suppliers of courses and teachers as well.

As part of the 2015 print report, Keeping Pace researchers profiled several of these districts. We will highlight several of these in upcoming posts.


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