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.”