Understanding Colorado’s Online Learners - Part I of III

Today’s guest post was written by Amanda Heiney, Senior Consultant at the Office of Online & Blended Learning at the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), which recently released two reports intended to provide a far better understanding of Colorado’s online students than we have ever had before. We look at what the studies found in Post II and Post III In the Fall of 2011, just a couple of months after I had accepted a position in the Unit of Online Learning at the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), there was a full-scale media blitz surrounding online learning in Colorado. Associate Commissioner Amy Anderson, who was also very new to the Department, was assailed with numerous requests for interviews, and a barrage of articles which painted online learning and online schools in a very negative light ensued.

Was there truth to the articles? Absolutely, but the articles were unflinchingly one-sided and oversimplified the complexities rife in the education system-from the student count, data collection systems and definitions to the type of students enrolling in Colorado’s online schools. While the online schools responded with anecdotal stories of student successes, the media had managed to get their hands on student-level data and perform several complex analyses, which told a solid compelling story.  As the field and the media looked to CDE for verification and/or the real story, I found—much to my dismay—that little was known about student-level trends in online schools.

Amy Anderson and I decided that we needed to conduct research so that CDE could tell the real story of online schools in Colorado—CDE should be the authority on this after all.  We reached out to the University of Colorado-Denver to help us conduct a survey study of students in a sample of online schools to find out why they had chosen online schools and to compare their experience in a brick-and- mortar school with their experience in their online school. We also decided to conduct an exploratory data analysis around state-collected data. Along with Dr. Dianne Lefly, the Director of Research and Evaluation at CDE, I sifted through millions of student records going back to 2003 trying to gain an understanding of the students who were enrolled in online schools.

Although I would like to say that after all of the hours and weeks of analysis, UCD, Amy, Dianne and I found all of the answers, that was not the case. However, we did establish a solid, unbiased baseline of the characteristics of Colorado’s online students, gain insight into student and parent perspectives and confirm some of the anecdotes we had heard from the field on numerous occasions. Like any research we discovered numerous other questions to explore in the future and more importantly, we set a precedent for the type of educational research that needs to be done in order to elevate and personalize practice. Rest assured, this set of student-level online studies will not be the last to come from CDE.