June 2011 Volume 53 Number 6
By Katie Rapp
During the summer months, some school districts are offering online and blended courses to help struggling students recover credits and to extend learning for more advanced students.
Traditional summer school has long carried the stigma of bored kids warming the seats, unmotivated teachers, and easy classes. While such stereotypes may not be completely unfounded, some schools are shaking up the summer school routine this year. More districts are going virtual this summer by adding online and blended courses, which combine online and face-to-face instruction, to help students catch up and even get ahead.
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) offers traditional summer school, online courses, and blended courses for credit recovery and credit acceleration, says Themistocles Sparangis, LAUSD's chief technology director for educational technology services. Sparangis notes that the blended courses work particularly well with struggling students who need face-to-face individualized attention as well as the online system.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., Debi Crabtree coordinates the Hamilton County Virtual School (HCVS), which operates as a service of the Hamilton County Department of Education. HCVS functions as a supplemental program, working in partnership with schools and home-school organizations to provide credit recovery and credit acceleration. "We serve students in new learning, credit recovery and in blended supplemental settings in brick and mortar classrooms. One hundred percent of our content is delivered online,"says Crabtree. "Teachers are also virtual and required to be available immediately by phone, email, text or Skype to their students ten hours a week."
HCVS serves a diverse group of students, including ESL, special education, homebound, and gifted, as well as credit recovery learners and those who want to graduate early or need more flexibility in their schedules, Crabtree explains.
Crabtree sees online courses as a great way to reinvigorate learning during the summer months and to help students who have fallen behind. Her experience with using online courses for this type of remedial work is more positive than the typical drudgery of the summer classroom, where learning gains might be minimal. "You want to make certain your students are recovering the learning, not just the credit," she says.
There are plenty of benefits to moving away from the traditional seat-time model of summer school, but, says Sparangis, saving money isn't one of them. "Online courses are not necessarily a cost savings, unless you take into account the cost of the building, services to keep the building operational, utilities, etc. What online courses do is provide greater flexibility, thereby doing more with less."
Matthew Wicks, vice president at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) says flexibility is a key benefit of online summer courses: "If band camp or family vacation interferes, they are knocked out of traditional summer school. Online courses can be more flexible and accommodating."
Also, for children on the go, mobile learning promises even more options for students to learn according to their own schedules. Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice, by the Evergreen Education Group, says, "If a student uses a Smartphone to start an online course in a classroom, participates in a virtual discussion on the bus home, and takes an assessment from the front porch that evening, that's clearly mobile learning." It is the kind of technology that students are comfortable with that frees them to work when and where it is best for them.
Repositioning the Teacher
"Contact with the teacher is just as important in online courses as at any other time. It is just that the role of the teacher changes in the online setting. Rather than delivering content, they are coaching, supporting, giving feedback, encouraging," says Crabtree.
In the blended learning environment, according to Keeping Pace, "The role of the teacher is critical, as blended learning requires a transformation of instruction as the teacher becomes a learning facilitator; instruction involves increased interaction between student-and-instructor, student-to-content and student-to-student." The report also notes that blended courses offer more possibilities for personalization. "Blended learning can personalize instruction to each student in a classroom, freeing the teacher to focus on working one-on-one with students in particular areas that they need additional help." In this environment, the teacher can more effectively differentiate instruction and meet students' learning needs.
Is Online Right for Everyone?
Online learning is the new frontier in education, and researchers are just beginning to understand the factors that lead to successful outcomes. Richard Ferdig, a research professor at the Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University and leader of the Virtual School Clearinghouse project, says, "Not every student is successful online. We're still trying to determine factors that enable or decrease online success."
The fact is that some students, both struggling and excelling, work better in a traditional classroom. Some course content is more effectively taught face to face. Also, strong communication and quick feedback from the instructor are essential to student success in an online setting.
As Sparangis points out, "Good online courses and course management systems emulate much of what is in the social networking sites and students like that. They do seem to get more out of the online environment...but many times students also think they are signing up for something easier and they find that it is not. In fact, they have to take a lot more ownership of their time and many times this is harder for students."
Wicks says, "Sometimes we see excelling students struggle with online learning because it's different. These students have been very successful in a traditional learning environment and this is a different approach. It can be a shock to their confidence."
Limited Evidence in the Research
Because online/blended learning is still in its infancy, there are bound to be failures and lessons learned. Some critics caution that political and budgetary pressures may be pushing the trend toward online education before research demonstrates its effectiveness over traditional modes. Says Michael K. Barbour, assistant professor of instructional technology at Detroit's Wayne State University, "Much of what the proponents claim runs counter to what we know based on the available research. Unfortunately, this research is often ignored or misused to push a specific political agenda."
Simply setting a student in front of a computer does not automatically result in a quality educational experience. According to the Innosight Institute's report, The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, "Just as a hybrid car can be either efficient or a clunker but still be a hybrid car, blended learning can be both good and bad. Some blended-learning programs save money; others are more expensive. Some blended-learning programs produce stellar results; others do not."
"People weren't always thoughtful about pedagogy, curriculum, or teacher professional development," says Ferdig. "They basically offered some PowerPoints online, and kids didn't learn. If all you're doing is changing the medium, but keeping the same approach and not using the features that are available online, then it is not effective."
A 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Education ("Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies") found evidence that blended learning worked better than traditional face-to-face learning for adult learners. However, with only five high-quality studies available for K-12, the report cautioned against generalizing the results to the K-12 population.
Studying student outcomes is extremely complex, so the lack of research may not be alarming. "It's fine that the DOE compared outcomes in 2009, but the better question is under what conditions do these approaches each work? We do have research that kids learn as well as, and in some cases better online, so let's try to figure out why," says Ferdig.
Quality Makes the Difference
What are features that make online learning effective? Ferdig points to the ability to create a personalized learning environment online, offering support to students who need more help and more advanced instruction to students who are ready for it. Continuous online feedback allows a skilled instructor to scaffold learning and adapt instruction to student needs. Such strategies can provide context and motivation to students and help them "own" the course content, keeping them engaged and learning.
Quality standards for online courses have been developed by the Quality Matters Program and iNACOL. Also, iNACOL has developed standards for quality online teaching and online programs. As such standards become more widely accepted and used, the quality of instruction will improve. The Common Core State Standards Initiative also has strong implications for improving quality standards for online courses.
One thing seems certain: online and blended learning will become more commonplace for both summer school and academic year offerings in the future. According to Innosight Institute, "Online learning has the potential to transform America's education system by serving as the backbone of a system that offers more personalized learning approaches for all students."
Discover ASCD's differentiated solutions to online professional development at www.ascd.org/onlinelearning. Check out these other resources for more info about online and blended learning.
Virtual Challenge: Creating Quality E-Courses (webinar) Presenters: Greg Marks, director of product development, Michigan Virtual University, and Debi Crabtree, coordinator, the Hamilton County Virtual Schools, Chattanooga, Tenn. (available at www.edweek.org/go/webinars/ecourses).
iNACOL, The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (www.inacol.org) is a nonprofit organization that facilitates collaboration, advocacy, and research to enhance quality K-12 online teaching and learning.
International Society for Technology in Education (www.iste.org) is a membership organization dedicated to the effective use of technology in preK-12 and teacher education.
Quality Matters Program (www.qmprogram.org) is a peer review process for certifying quality online and blended courses.
Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education.
IESD Comprehensive Technical Report Evaluation of the Social Skills of Full-Time, Online Public School Students, Interactive Education Systems Design (IESD), Inc., in collaboration with The Center for Research in Educational Policy (CREP) at the University of Memphis.
Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice.
Research Committee Issues Brief: An Exploration of At-Risk Learners and Online Education, iNACOL Research Committee.
The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, Innosight Institute.
A Summary of Research on the Effectiveness of K-12 Online Learning, iNACOL.
Understanding the Role and Applicability of K-12 Online Learning to Support Student Dropout Recovery Efforts, Richard E. Ferdig and Michigan Virtual University.
Copyright © 2011 by ASCD