04/11/2014 | By Jim Snyder
In the past year, two major studies looked at the growth of online classes and courses in the K-12 school district market. One study by MDR and K12, entitled “Second annual review of best practices for implementing online learning in K-12 school districts,” found that 81 percent of school districts that had an online learning program offered online courses to their students — and this was up from 66 percent in 2012. Additionally, 33 percent of the districts surveyed offered a full time online learning program. The second report, “Keeping Pace with K-12 Online and Blended Learning,” by Evergreen Education Group found that roughly five percent of the total K-12 population took part in online and blending learning and around 75 percent of all school districts have some online or blended option. Many districts do not have full-time online programs, but rather online course options that fill voids which are more specifically targeted, like advance placement, dual enrollment or credit recovery. For districts with online programs, there are two options; school systems can develop their own courses in-house, or turn to third-party providers, which could include state virtual schools, private providers (publishers) or other school districts.
Both of these studies found that over the past few years, online courses have been growing and in some areas overtaking their face-to-face counterparts. A news piece published in December of 2013, found that “during the 2012-2013 school year, 65 percent of Apex Learning Virtual School AP students scored a three or better on the AP exams across courses, outpacing the national average of 59 percent by six percentage points.” The online students were doing better than their peers in brick and mortar classrooms.
With growth comes the question of quality. A recent article, “Quality in Online Learning: What Does that Mean for the Online Learner,” addressed this question of quality of online courses.
When we talk about the quality of a course or a program, are we talking about outputs such as grades, degrees, competencies and jobs? When we say we have a high-quality offering, are we really talking about inputs? Is it about the expertise and national reputation of the [teacher] and/or the [district]? Is it about the money spent and the production value of videos and other content in the course? Is it about the sophistication of the technology platform that can support large numbers of students? Or are we really, specifically, talking about the student experience in a course?
With so many factors influencing quality, what steps can school districts take to validate the quality of online and blended courses? Is it enough to make sure they at least meet the rigor of face-to-face classes? Do school districts invest in building the online courses themselves or work with outside organizations to help deliver the needed content? Perhaps both are the best answer.
Blue Valley School District – Virtual Education
Blue Valley School District in Kansas has created a virtual education program that provides students with the opportunities to design their own personalized learning. The program is for high school students and allows students to participate in web-based instruction with other students across the district. These virtual classrooms allow students the freedom to work on the coursework when and where they have time. Each web-based course is designed to align with Blue Valley District curriculum and, currently, the Kansas state standards. As a subscriber to The Quality Matters Program (QM), a non-profit with resources and tools focusing on quality assurance in online course design, the Virtual Education staff work with content matter experts to write the online material based on the QM K-12 Secondary Rubric’s standards for online course design. Each course developer is provided with a checklist that includes the content requirements for the online materials. Throughout the development process, an instructional designer collaborates with the content matter expert to ensure that all required components are included into the course design. Prior to enrolling students in the online course, a panel of Blue Valley certified teachers review the course content, design and format to ensure that the course aligns with district curriculum. Following the panel review, the district’s instructional designer completes any course revisions. At Blue Valley, designing an online course requires significant time and commitment from everyone involved. The district works to identify key elements to be included in the course design and establish policies and procedures for evaluating the content using a rubric.
Recommendations that Blue Valley has for other districts planning to create virtual courses would be to utilize existing teachers to develop the online content and to review all courses with representatives from the content area. This will ensure that the face-to-face teachers are aware of the content, have reviewed the materials and are able to determine the validity of the coursework.
Well-designed online and blended courses ensure that students know how to “get started” by offering explicit instructions, provide learner support, and are accessible. In addition, they have assessments, instructional materials, interactions, and technology which align to measurable learning objectives. Making all of these components work together can become a struggle for districts and organizations creating their own courses. The Quality Matters Program has been a great support for many school districts, like Blue Valley, because it provides an annotated Rubric for course design, a process for course reviews with web-based tools, and professional development on using the Rubric, conducting course reviews, and designing and improving online courses.
It’s one thing to have the capacity to develop district-grown, or state-grown, online courses, but what if you don’t? Schools and districts lacking the capacity to develop their own online courses are looking to content developers to supplement their offerings. Quakertown Community School District in Pennsylvania set up their online academy in 2008 with the hope of keeping high-risk students from dropping out of the system and offering more flexible course options for students with outside-of-school commitments and for those wishing to accelerate. While some of their online and blended courses were created in the district, other content was provided by outside organizations like MyLanguage360 Mandarin Chinese, Apex Learning, Virtual High School, Compass Learning, Blended Schools Consortium, and K12 Inc.
In the state of Maryland, a state wide initiative to provide high quality online learning courses for students led to the adoption of Senate Bill 674, establishing direction for process and procedures. The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) document Process and Procedures for Offering Student Online Courses in Maryland Public Schools outlines a course review process, which allows for reviews conducted by MSDE approved course review providers. MSDE looked to The Quality Matters Program to provide this service, and it has conducted over 70 such reviews for K-12 Publishers like Apex Learning and Connections Academy (part of ConnectionEducation.edu, a Pearson Company).
The need for online courses and programs at the K-12 level is only increasing with each passing year. With states potentially requiring K-12 students to take at least one online course in the future as a requirement for graduation, like Idaho did in 2011 (repealed in 2012), the need for a program with high quality online courses is more important than ever. Jennifer Sayre in a recent article outlined 10 keys steps to building a successful in-district program. Two of the steps were “Build with the End in Mind” and “It is okay to Get Professional Help.” She wrote, “though you may feel totally alone as an online teacher, you’re not. Teachers across the nation have struggled through what you’re doing. Network. There are online communities and non-profits specializing in professional development for online educators.” By detailing out the standards of a high quality course and working with the major players in the K-12 market, districts can ensure that more students are be better served where and when they need it.