Research review: “A Review of Online Algebra I Courses”

Two studies that look at algebra, one looking at online courses and one examining blended courses, have been released recently. Each provides valuable insights and suggestions for practice and policy. The first study is Supporting K–12 Students in Online Learning: A Review of Online Algebra I Courses, from SRI International with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It looked at online algebra from six course providers: Apex Learning,, Edgenuity, Florida Virtual School, K12 Inc., and Michigan Virtual School.

The key findings strike us as useful although not surprising. They are valuable to have presented in a report like this, if only to validate for policymakers what many practitioners know. The findings include:

  • Providers are “active in aligning their courseware to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.”
  • Providers  “typically have a number of implementation models that allow varying degrees of local control over software use, teacher role, and administrative policies.”
  • “The online medium presents opportunities to embed practices that can encourage broader participation of underrepresented minorities in online Algebra I courses, such as social-psychological “gap” interventions to help students build confidence and resilience."
  • “The data collected by the courseware are still primarily focused on the correctness of the answers that students provide, not the process of how they got there.”
  • “We see opportunities to strengthen practices and further incorporate strategies around the use of data for personalization and instructional adaptability. Current data systems have limited capacity to support robust learner analytics, often because necessary data are not captured or stored in a usable format.”

In addition to these findings, two items from the report jump out at me :

1. First, the review and recommendations show that while online algebra is relatively mature (compared to other online courses), there is still much to learn and to improve. The recommendations in the report are worthwhile and will require investment from the providers. This investment is necessary and is not being taken into account by policymakers who, in many states, are funding online schools and courses at levels substantially below the levels of traditional schools and students.

State legislators too often overlook the initial and ongoing investment that is necessary to develop and consistently improve online courses, and therefore believe that reduced funding levels are appropriate. The lower funding levels are not only shorting current students, but impeding the levels of investment that will improve courses and outcomes for students in years to come.

2. The report includes a caveat that is so important that I hope nobody who reads the report misses it:

“Although important, the study does not address local implementation of the courseware, including teachers’ and students’ use of the courseware or local school-based adaptations that may further support the use of online courses in particular settings.”

That stipulation is so important because, in my estimation, the effects of “local implementation” and the online teacher will dwarf the effects of the online content alone.

State policies tend to focus quality requirements and reviews on content. Teaching, technology, student support, and other factors are rarely considered equally in policy, mostly because they are simply harder to understand, review, and report on. But that doesn’t make them any less important.

A future blog post will look at the second study, from RAND Education on blended algebra.