Laura Johnson’s Unhappy Online Learning Journey

Amidst all of the reporting in Education News Colorado’s excellent three-part investigative series on Colorado’s largest full-time online learning programs, it was Laura Johnson’s story that struck me:

In the tiny Florence School District outside Pueblo, Johnson was one of 39 students who left Florence High School last year to sign up for online classes with GOAL Academy, one of the largest online schools in Colorado…

Johnson said she signed up for GOAL in July after her former science teacher promised free college classes. But she was back at Florence High School by January with no credits earned.

“I feel like I wasted an entire semester of my life,” said Johnson, now working overtime to boost her grades in hopes the gap in her transcript will be less noticeable to colleges.

So, a trusted former teacher, perhaps at a free BBQ in a local park, told Johnson about a wonderful new way to learn. Good for GOAL, which got a year’s worth of funding. And bummer for Florence High, which lost Johnson’s state dollars.

But the real risk — and real consequences — were borne by Johnson. It may be true that Johnson made a poor decision when she decided to enroll in GOAL in the first place. But, a system that offers little guidance and no safety nets for ill-informed high school students making big educational decisions is almost certain to produce many more stories of seventeen year-olds wasting a semester of school at the worst possible time. If we are going to offer students new options — and we should — policymakers must first do whatever they can to mitigate the risks borne by students.

Wrestling with the Mobility Issue

Data from both Ohio and Colorado show exceptional levels of mobility among full-time online students. In Ohio, state data show that about a third of students were enrolled for less than a year. Ed News Colorado found that of 10,500 students in the largest online programs in fall 2008, more than half – or 5,600 – left their virtual schools by the fall of 2009.

Representatives of online schools claim that this mobility is not necessarily a bug, but a feature. And, they’re not entirely wrong:

Reasons for the turnover include working with an at-risk student population that sees online learning as their last resort, students who use online as a brief experimentation with a new learning process, and parents not being able to stay home to oversee their children’s studies, said Heather O’Mara, executive director of Hope Online, one of the state’s largest online programs.

“We are all so different, we are serving different audiences and students are enrolling for very different reasons,” O’Mara said. “At Hope, we particularly target kids who are at risk, who have not been academically successful, not only at their previous school, probably several schools before that.”

But it’s also likely that high mobility is a sign of dissatisfaction or misaligned expectations about what online learning would really entail. And, since we don’t accept “we serve difficult students” as a blanket excuse when evaluating traditional school districts, we shouldn’t accept it for online schools either.

Most importantly, we need to align the incentives so that schools are compelled to share the risk with students — even if it slows growth. Here, Branson Online High offers a hopeful example, as its recent focus on ensuring families understood the online program before enrolling appears to be leading to more successful outcomes.

These are sticky, complex issues. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in its recent brief on virtual charter schools, acknowledges that high mobility impacts instruction and makes it challenging to evaluate virtual school performance, but offers no prescriptions.

I’ll offer up my ideas over the next few days. But it’s time to stop ducking this issue. I hope providers, advocates, and accountability hawks will respond with ideas of their own.

-Bill Tucker

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