Does online learning work?

Some variation of the question “Does it work?” is the most common question that I get from policymakers and reporters regarding online learning, blended learning, and other innovative instructional strategies using technology.

In some cases, the question is easy to answer. These are cases in which, to borrow (and alter) a phrase from the Christensen Institute, online learning is filling a non-consumption gap. When a student takes an online Advanced Placement course that was not available at her school, and gets a five on the exam, then that course has clearly “worked.” Similarly, when a student in a blended early college high school like Innovations in Salt Lake City, or Oasis in California, graduates high school with several college credits accumulated, that is another fairly clear instance of a successful outcome.

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Questioning personalized learning

“Personalized learning” is among the current buzzwords in K-12 education. Many buzzwords lack clear definitions, are used to describe a wide range of practices, and are linked to unsubstantiated hype, and “personalized learning” is no exception. For one example see this NPR article in which a CEO refers to his company’s software as “a robot tutor in the sky that can semi-read your mind and figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, down to the percentile.”

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Online snow days are still a thing

From time to time we are asked the extent to which schools can use online learning to continue instruction during snow days or other school closings. The overall answer seems to be:

  • Yes it happens occasionally
  • Not very much, though, because…
  • In order to shift instruction to online at that level, a school must have a program in place that is more robust than most have.
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Policy can’t make people do things well

The best sentence I read in 2017 was this:

“Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well.”

That’s from Rick Hess, via Larry Cuban’s blog (where I first saw it), and the journal of the American Federation of Teachers. As he explains further:

“Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it’s most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.

Here’s what I mean: Say a governor wants to mandate that all schools offer teacher induction based on a terrific program she’s seen. Her concern is that if the directive is too flexible, some schools will do it enthusiastically and well, but those she’s most concerned about will not. So, she wants to require schools to assign a mentor to each new teacher. But then she worries that the “problem schools” will treat the mentoring as busywork. So, she also wants to require that mentors meet weekly with their charges and document that they’ve addressed 11 key topics in each session. But this still can’t ensure that mentors will treat their duties as more than box-checking, so she wants to require…” (The dot-dot-dot is in the original.)

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Ed tech hype never takes a break

While we were taking a break from blogging earlier this year, the hype that accompanies K-12 educational technology continued apace. This has left us a bit backlogged in pointing out stories that create unrealistic expectations about the current extent, and future promise, of technology in K-12 schools. In the interest of catching up we’ll note two such stories in this post.

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Six Myths (and Realities) of Online Learning

Online and blended learning are being embraced by many schools and states, as discussed in Evergreen’s recent reports, commissioned by the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, titled “Why do students choose blended and online schools” and Teaching with Technology: Educators’ Perspectives and Recommendations for Successful Blended Instructional Strategies. Despite the growth of online and blended learning, and even though digital learning has been offered in schools for decades, several myths surrounding its benefits and challenges persist. Most of these myths are understood as being incorrect by educators experienced with digital learning, but the myths persist in the media, and among both advocates and critics. This post attempts to dispel six of the most common misconceptions, adding a dose of reality to each. Read on to see if you’ve heard (or have bought into) any of the following ideas, or feel free to share your own in the comments section below.

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Research vs policy in online learning

For those of us who have been in the K-12 digital learning field for a while, it’s especially useful to get out of the bubble and hear what others think about online and blended learning. Reports from the Brooking Institution are especially valuable because Brookings is centrist, non-partisan, and evidence-based. Although the recent study Online schooling: Who is harmed and who is helped? reviewed literature mostly about post-secondary education, it makes a particularly valuable distinction in the K-12 realm that should be required reading for people who believe that research should drive all policy.

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Education systems still challenged to keep pace with learning innovations

When we began working on our first Keeping Pace report back in 2004, our focus was on exploring the ways in which existing policy and accountability systems in K-12 education were not keeping up with online learning. State funding and accountability mechanisms were out of tune with new schools, creating instances in which good innovative schools were hindered, and other cases in which schools took advantage of loopholes and grey areas in education policy to game the system.

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NCES: 21% of US public schools offer at least one online course

According to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • During the 2015-16 school year, about 21% of public schools in the United States offered at least one course entirely online.
  • Far more high schools (58%) offered online courses than did middle schools (13%) or elementary schools (3%).
  • A higher percentage of charter schools than traditional public schools offered online courses (29% to 20%).
  • About 45% of very small schools with fewer than 100 students offered online courses, as did a very similar percentage of large schools (enrolling 1,000 students or more). Schools with between 200 and 1,000 students all had lower rates of offering online courses, at about 15%.
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Teachers’ voices

A main goal of our Teaching with Technology study was to ensure that the authentic voices of teachers came through clearly and accurately. We compiled nearly 2,000 text responses to open-ended survey questions, and spoke with just over 50 teachers and administrators. Their stories give life to the promise, successes, and challenges of implementing technology in the classroom.

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“Blended learning” versus teaching with technology

When planning our recent report, Teaching with Technology: Educators’ perspectives and recommendations for successful blended instructional strategies, we debated how much to use the terms “blended learning” and “blended teaching” in the survey, interviews, and report.

The argument for using those terms was that the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, which commissioned the study, is explicitly interested in blended learning and the most innovative uses of technology in education.

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New report on teachers’ view on ed tech

For our study, Teaching with Technology: Educators’ perspectives and recommendations for successful blended instructional strategies, we surveyed 664 teachers and spoke with more than 50 teachers and administrators, in focus groups at schools, at conferences, and by phone. Teachers represented a range of grade levels and subjects taught, and most were from traditional public schools.

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Back to blogging

We’ve taken a bit of a break from blogging recently—for about the past 15 months in fact. With this post and with the launch of our revised website, we are ending our blogging hiatus. Our plan is to post once per week, and occasionally more often, to help spread news items of interest, comment on developments in the field and new reports, and share our own research and findings. 

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State virtual schools continue to grow and evolve

In Keeping Pace 2015 we wrote extensively about state virtual schools, in particular noting some of the new directions that state virtual schools are taking as they face increasing competition from other providers and from districts developing their own online content. This past week we met with a group of state virtual schools that are part of the Virtual School Leadership Alliance, and found that they continue to grow and evolve. Keeping Pace characterizes state virtual schools as operational intermediate supplier organizations that provide online learning programs to schools statewide. 

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The growth of post-secondary online learning: implications for K-12 education

Among the reasons that schools, students, and parents are interested in online courses is that they believe that the use of online learning is growing in colleges, and they want high school graduates to be well prepared for post-secondary learning. Therefore, tracking recent developments in online learning at the post-secondary level is valuable for people primarily interested in K-12 education, and fortunately several good sources of information exist, including WCET, the Babson Survey Research Group, Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein at E-Literate, and the federal government. The WCET Distance Education Enrollment Report 2016 analyzes fall 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). It counts students in two categories: those who are exclusively in distance education, and students who are mixing distance learning and on-campus courses. A third category, “at least one distance education course,” combines the two categories.

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“Solve is a loaded word”

The last post, “We grew the blended program by solving one problem at a time,” explored the ways in which two successful blended programs in Oregon had grown. As the title suggested, those programs, Bend La Pine and Crater Lake, focused on challenges faced by students or schools, addressed those challenges, and moved on to the next. I had spoken with Tres Tyvand of Bend La Pine to make sure the post captured ideas in her presentation accurately, but reading the post once it went live got her thinking more about what she presented last week in Portland. The thoughts she sent in her email are worth adding as a coda to the earlier post:

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“We grew the blended program by solving one problem at a time”

Last week Fuel Education held a Blended Learning Leaders Forum in Portland, Oregon, that featured two excellent speakers: Tres Tyvand of Bend La Pine Schools, and Bryan Wood of the Crater Lake Charter School. Both gave inspiring presentations, and one element that stood out for me was that both gave similar answers to how their programs had grown. Each emphasized that their programs expanded by focusing on a problem faced by the district or by individual students, solving that problem, and in doing so showing how blended learning can be a critical element of success for students and schools. Then they moved on to the next problem, solved it, and in doing so the programs grew.

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