Elements of success in digital learning: persistence

Recently we released Proof Points: Blended Learning Success in School Districts. This is the third of a series of blog posts reviewing findings across the districts that we researched, and other schools and districts that we have not yet profiled. Most of the programs that we have researched, even those that are currently successful in terms of student success, experienced some early challenges. They found success in time, but often first faced some bumps in the road.

Examples of this include:

  • The Putnam County Schools Virtual Instruction to Accentuate Learning (VITAL) program now provides a wide range of blended-learning options to students in the Putnam County School System. But when it started back in 2008, it was focused on credit recovery, and according to district leaders it was small and ineffective. They learned from early mistakes, and grew only as they felt confident that it was helping students recover credits and master the course content. Eventually it expanded beyond credit recovery into other blended courses and programs.
  • Poudre School District Global Academy initially competed with online schools that could attract students from anywhere in Colorado and had students accessing online courses from home, without a required onsite component. Over time, however, the school’s leaders came to believe that student performance would benefit from combining online learning with a brick-and-mortar component to maximize the benefits of both online and face-to-face learning. As a result, they shifted the school’s model to the Enriched Virtual model of blended learning, and students attend the physical school at least two days per week.
  • Several programs that we have studied (some that we have profiled and others that we have not yet published) have found success in a subset of grade levels or subject areas, and are still working to improve student outcomes in other areas. For example, some schools have been able to improve student achievement in math but have not yet been able to improve outcomes in other subject areas. It is unclear whether this is because math content is generally better than content in other areas, because math is for some reason a better fit for blended learning, or for other reasons.
  • Some programs began digital learning via the creation of an online program. For example, the success of Spokane Public Schools has been built partially on the prior development of Spokane Virtual Learning. These online programs may be successful, but they often reach a smaller percentage of students than the subsequent blended program. The experience of educators developing Clark County’s digital learning program, which is based in part on the district’s experience running the Nevada Learning Academy, has been similar.

The most common successful pattern appears to be starting small, with a targeted online or blended program, creating success in that program, and then expanding to other students, grade levels, and subject areas. Districts that go big too quickly often run into major problems and are not easily able to recover.