Instant messaging, email, on-line forums, phone calls — it’s all part of online teaching and online learning, according to the teachers who believe it offers great opportunities for their students. As schools and student move into this new world, the kinds of teaching and learning experience continue to change. Although Minnesota has no state virtual school, it does have online charter schools, multi-district programs, single district programs, intermediate districts and consortia of schools. Legislation has generally favored online learning, and the state set up a task force in 2008 (renewed this year) whose aim is to look at online learning state wide. As of September of 2011, there were 24 certified online learning public school providers, including eight consortia or intermediate districts, seven charter school programs, and nine multi-district programs, according to the Evergreen Ed Group’s report, Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning: An Annual Review of Policy and Practice (2011)
Minnesota is at the forefront of online learning, according to Amy Murin, a researcher from Evergreen Ed Group . “Minnesota is one of the more active states in terms of its approach to online learning,” Murin said. “They are thoughtful about offering programs statewide.” In some cases, districts are coming together as consortia, doing a lot of good collaboration, she said, while a legislative task force is promoting a statewide discussion.
This article, exploring best practices in online learning, is one of a series. Going to school by computer: Minnesota’s online classes for K-12 students focused on the different formats and reasons for online education. The third article, Too smart for school? Online learning offers alternative, looks at students who don’t fit neatly into the school system.
Identifying the problems
The state audit showed that while the number of online course registrations had quadrupled in the last few years, online students were less likely to finish the courses they started. Full-time online students were more likely to drop out than students in general, and had significantly lower proficiency rates on the math MCA-II, although their proficiency rates in reading were similar to those of other students.
Part of the discrepancy in the test scores, Murin said, could in part be due to that many students who choose online programs are those that were struggling in traditional schools, so to compare their scores to traditional schools might not present an accurate picture.
The Keeping Pace report also found that the students who were most successful in completing their work were students taking supplemental courses. Those students had a 77 percent completion rate in 2010-2011. Full-time online students, in contrast, had a 68 percent completion during that time period. Students doing supplemental credit recovery had a 50 percent completion percentage, and students doing comprehensive credit recovery had a 60 percent completion rate, according to the report.
Unfortunately, despite pro-online learning policies coming from the legislature, the data collected by Evergreen Ed Group doesn’t show a resounding endorsement for the academic value of online education. Particularly worrisome are the numbers from a state audit, released in the fall of 2011 (see sidebar.)
Strategies for success in online classes
Sonya Krasean is in her fifth year of teaching online courses through MPS Online, after being a classroom teacher for 12 years at South High School. She currently teaches an online algebra course for eighth graders. Krasean said the challenge of teaching online courses is all in the way she communicates with her students.
Though they may be teaching the same concepts, not having that face-to-face time with students requires teachers to get used to using different technologies. Krasean uses instant messaging and virtual meetings as a way to get students comfortable. She also uses these methods as a way to compensate for the fact that she’s not seeing the faces of her students if they look puzzled. Now, a student might type symbols, like a smiley face, or a confused face, to show if they are getting, or not getting a particular concept. “I can read students quite well,” she said.
Krasean holds “virtual office hours,” an open time when students can meet with her online. She also uses videos, or gives the students reading.
Robert Bilyk, Director for the Center for Online Learning at Metro State University, said the key to successful online learning is having a structured presence. “It’s really important that the instructor reaches out,” he said. Instructors need to be welcoming, and must respond to students in a timely manner. The instructors must “help students one on one,” he said. “That is the number one key thing,” he said. “Once a student feels the course is instructor-less, the student gets alienated from the course.”
“The challenge is reaching out over the divide,” Bilyk said, “so that students feel connected. When instructors do this well, there’s a greater degree of personal attention. … In a regular class, a student can be invisible.” If the teacher is a good facilitator and good at building communities, he said, some students come out of their shell in an online setting.
Students do better with online schools over time, according to the Keeping Pace report . That is, the longer they stay in the online schools, the better they get at managing their time and the curriculum, and the whole family gets more comfortable with the online format, Murin said.