What Does Online Learning Look Like?

Tampa, Florida, 2013. Ten-year-old Ian Skeggs fidgets in his plastic chair. He’s in a small multipurpose room with plenty of distractions around—an easel with markers, a sink in the corner, and perhaps most distracting of all, a box of doughnuts on the counter.

His mother, Jodi, sits across from him at the table, nudging him to follow instructions: connect to the network, log in to the Florida Virtual School web site, navigate to Hillsborough Virtual School. But Ian would really rather have a doughnut.

About a dozen other students sit around the room, also next to their parents (and some siblings), following along on their laptops and iPads. “What’s the Wi-Fi password here?” one 5th grader asks as soon as he enters the room, which is in the administrative offices at Hillsborough County Schools in Tampa, Florida. Students here are full-time, online learners about to enter 6th grade, which means more world history and fewer animated activities, and a series of teachers to correspond with, rather than just one. “You’re going to be taking six classes,” a guidance counselor tells the students during this 6th-grade orientation.

“Six?” One girl’s eyes get big.

ednext_jan15_zatynski_img01The transition from 5th to 6th grade is a big leap for these students, like most others, because courses have a more demanding pace and require more autonomy. Perhaps most daunting of all: for each class, they’ll have a different teacher, whom they will have to contact regularly to demonstrate their comprehension of course material.

Ian, by this point, has moved his laptop from the table to the counter by the doughnuts and is stacking a few plastic chairs so he can comfortably sit and still reach his screen. This is why Ian didn’t survive in his brick-and-mortar classroom―daily life was too stimulating (due in part to his Asperger’s syndrome) and mostly unfulfilling.

“When I was doing math in school, I was like,” Ian scribbles furiously in the air, “for five minutes—and done. Then, for 25 minutes, I was like,” Ian hangs off the back of his chair, pretending to sleep. He sits up and sighs heavily, as if the recollection itself bored him.

The state of Florida has been a pioneer in online learning, giving public school students the choice to enroll in any state-approved online charter school (see “Florida’s Online Option,” features, Summer 2009). By 2015, all Florida high-school students will have to complete at least one online course for graduation. But the degree to which administrators embrace and deliver virtual learning varies considerably from the tip of the Panhandle to the swamplands of Tampa.

Some districts are frank: they created an online program to satisfy state law, billing it a “last resort” for students who might otherwise drop out. This is how most online programs began more than a decade ago, providing last-ditch efforts to keep children enrolled by putting reading assignments online and asking students to take a couple of multiple-choice tests.

But that was before classrooms were equipped with laptops or tablets, before the Internet became a prime means of research, and before programs like Khan Academy created lessons in engaging, video formats. Now some districts are piloting an online elementary curriculum while others remain lodged in the 20th century.

Florida isn’t alone. Several other states are moving ahead as well:

Louisiana has launched a Course Choice program that allows students to take online courses for high school credit from approved providers, including nonprofits, for-profits, associations, and colleges. In 2013, the state had to allocate an additional $1 million (for a total of $3 million) to meet student demand for the program.

In the last 10 years, cyber-charter schooling has exploded in Pennsylvania, with 14 options now offered statewide. Public school districts, which lose their per-pupil funding each time a student enrolls in one of the cyber charters, are creating their own programs to compete. The Philadelphia school district is the latest, launching its virtual school in 2013.

In Utah, high schoolers can enroll in up to four of their eight courses every year online, and under the state’s “choice for the course” law, students can take those courses from any approved school. When the law passed in 2011, just two school districts provided online courses. (Some private and charter options were also available, but many weren’t open to students statewide.) In 2014, at least 29 of the state’s 41 districts offer online coursework.

By enrolling online, students can take elective courses, such as German, that are not offered at their brick-and-mortar schools, or retake failed English courses and avoid the embarrassment of being in classes with underclassmen. But what more families are realizing is that online students can move along in the same courses as their classmates, using the virtual classroom to develop time and management skills, and perhaps most importantly, autonomy and responsibility for their own learning. In the 2012–13 school year, more than 240,000 students in Florida took at least one online course, nearly 35,000 students logged into Pennsylvania cyber charters every morning, and 2 million students nationwide enrolled part-time or full-time in online programs.

Nationally, the variation in online programs—their offerings and even their missions—is pronounced. Comprehensive data on the quality of online learning programs are still hard to come by. But policymakers, districts, and even parents are pushing ahead, eager to experiment with an instructional delivery method that promises personalization while setting students up with technological skills needed in today’s workplace. Teachers and students already immersed in online education will say it’s the same standards and the same outcomes—online coursework is just a different way of getting there.

“What I hear from parents is they’re looking for the best fit,” says Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, a Utah organization that pushes for policies that increase school choice across the state. “What digital learning provides, especially ‘choice for the course,’ is the opportunity to customize their child’s schedule to ensure the greatest amount of success. Digital learning is a mechanism for improved student outcomes. It provides personalized, one-on-one instruction that really ensures competency and subject mastery—and parents get that.”

The Question of Outcomes

For years, online education served a small percentage of the public school population—for course make-ups, for students unable to go to school, and for prodigies pursuing their passions in athletics or music. But just as access to online coursework has grown, so have the number of skeptics and calls for better accountability (or any at all). That’s because details about outcomes in the online sphere are scant. States rarely require districts or schools to uniformly report data on online enrollments, student progress, or outcomes. (The exception is virtual charter schools, which must report some data to receive state funding.) If data are available, it’s usually a result of the school’s own curiosity or initiative—and even then, it’s not always available publicly. Complicating matters, at least for full-time online programs, is the nature of online students. They’re more likely to transfer in and out and take courses piecemeal than students in brick-and-mortar schools, which makes keeping track of them more difficult.

This all means that the public has little information on the outcomes of online education on a large scale—whether students are getting the same caliber of instruction, with the same rigor, or whether their diplomas carry the same significance. Critics would say no to all of these things, pointing to the importance of in-person discussions and collaboration with classmates to developing soft skills like critical thinking and problem solving. Some just believe that online instruction is “less” in some way—less rigorous, less meaningful, less enriching. They see it as a set of multiple-choice quizzes that don’t force students to think deeply or independently.

And it could be. The only data they have are anecdotal stories, like the ones presented below, or the few small-scale reports, like Matthew Chingos and Guido Schwerdt’s study of Florida Virtual School (FLVS), which found no evidence that quality is poorer in the online environment. Even though FLVS is the largest statewide online school in the nation and we hope we can draw some broader conclusions from those findings, the online environment varies widely. Critics and proponents alike simply need more data.

Keeping Pace, an annual report that has tracked the growth of online learning nationwide for more than a decade, has acknowledged this and recently expanded its research to capture evidence of outcomes. But as the report noted in its state snapshots last year, many states—despite burgeoning access to online education—are rated “fair” or “poor” for the information available on their online learning options. Yet the anecdotal evidence keeps accumulating.

Experimenting Online

Eight 3rd graders sit at small groups of computers in the basement media center at the Lee Elementary School of Technology and World Studies in Tampa, Florida, one of those ancient public schools that creaks and echoes with each step. For one hour, four days per week, they take science class as part of a pilot program. Their teacher, Denee Upshaw, is on the screen, working from home. These 3rd graders learn the same concepts—plants and animals and forms of energy—in the same order, from the same textbook as their peers; they just do it online.

In a typical classroom, a teacher might introduce a topic by talking about it and encouraging a discussion to gauge what students already know. Classroom teachers might highlight some key vocabulary words and hand out worksheets so students can apply what they just learned.

Here in the media center, these online 3rd graders listen to an audio file that outlines the upcoming chapter, “How Do Plants Live and Grow?” They read the text in an e-book. Sometimes, they watch a video. Students write and draw vocabulary words in their notebooks, then answer three questions drafted and adapted by Upshaw to test their comprehension.

To ensure students are referring to their e-books and not just answering by memory, Upshaw requires students to write answers in complete sentences and cite the page numbers where they found them. If they have a question or do not understand a concept, they send a message to Upshaw, who responds immediately. “The girls also like to tattle on the boys,” she says and smiles, when the boys are goofing around and not doing their work. (A school employee sits in the media center to supervise but does not provide academic support.)

Online students are given simple weekly science experiments to do at home, such as putting a pencil through a balloon without popping it. And quarterly, Upshaw stops by the media center to do an in-class activity, like the time the 3rd graders predicted whether Hershey’s, Snickers, Kit Kats, and 3 Musketeers candy bars would sink or float. (The students understood that they had to account for the candy’s weight, but they forgot about density. The 3 Musketeers and Kit Kats floated to the top.)

Apart from their learning environment, these eight 3rd graders are just like their peers at Lee Elementary, where 77 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunch, an indicator of poverty, and many report not having computer access at home. A total of 13 students were initially asked to participate in this pilot project with Hillsborough County Schools—an effort to expand its online offerings beyond its full-time virtual school. “It was very easy to see from the beginning who likes to play” rather than do work, says Upshaw. Those “playing” children were transitioned back into their brick-and-mortar science class, and these eight students continued on. At the end of the year, those studying online finished in the same place as their brick-and-mortar peers (all eight passed); they just took a different route to get there.

Hillsborough County’s pilot project was the first attempt in the state to go all online, textbooks included, but teachers were hesitant. “They were like, ‘You do what? They don’t have books? They don’t have manipulatives?’…Teachers were very,” Upshaw pauses, “condescending. Resistant.”

Since my visit, that pilot project has ended. But parents are catching on to the possibilities online learning offers their children. Jonathan Aquino moved his son, Zachary, to Hillsborough Virtual two years ago because he didn’t like his son working until 8 or 9 p.m. every night on homework. He felt much of his son’s school day was wasted on menial tasks or waiting for his peers to catch up when Zachary could have been working on assignments. At Hillsborough Virtual, Aquino says, he watched his son closely at first to be sure he was doing his schoolwork. But over the year, Aquino saw Zachary slowly take ownership of his work, regularly reporting his progress to his teacher and going back to review concepts on his own when he struggled. “It lets him be more independent,” Aquino says.

District officials say that as more families like the Aquinos discover online learning, schools risk losing them to virtual charters with enticing television advertisements and billboards—not to mention easy, online enrollment. The loss could cripple already-dwindling public school budgets—unless those schools create attractive programs of their own.

Denise Scott first enrolled her daughter, Jessica, as a 2nd grader, in K12, Inc., a national online course provider approved by the state of Florida. (K12, Inc., also provides curricula for several districts across the country.) At that time, five years ago, she had only two online options: K12, Inc., or Connections, another national provider that was bought by Pearson in 2011. In 2013, Scott moved Jessica, as a 7th grader, and her brother, John, a 4th grader, to Hillsborough Virtual, where they can take advanced courses that weren’t available at their previous school. “I want to be a veterinarian when I grow up, so I need those courses,” says Jessica, matter-of-factly. Although a 7th grader, she’s in freshman algebra and physical science this year. Scott says her children now have access to extracurriculars and the opportunity for more face time with teachers, which she says is a benefit of enrolling in a district-level virtual school, as opposed to one that operates nationally.

Charlotte Mascari, who has taught high school history at Hillsborough Virtual for five years, estimates that she speaks with students one-on-one for 30 minutes to one hour each month. On the Friday before a holiday weekend, she had 12 hours of back-to-back half-hour phone calls scheduled with students (an abnormally high volume, she admits, because it was nearing the end of the semester and also the day before a three-day weekend). “How many times do you do that in a brick-and-mortar classroom?” she quipped. The 35-year veteran of education started teaching online more than a decade ago. She sees online learning—in some form, whether or not blended with in-classroom instruction—as the way forward for education. “This is 21st-century technology. The classroom doesn’t have to be in the brick-and-mortar situation,” she pauses. “It limits it, actually.” She says she’s had more opportunities to engage students virtually than she ever had in the classroom. An example: four years ago, she taught a world history course over the summer, and while vacationing with her daughter in Beijing, she Skyped with her students from the Great Wall (coincidentally, as they trudged through their unit on China). “You can’t be afraid of change,” she says. “That’s what education is: change. And learning has to be continual.”

Finding the Right Balance

When Central Dauphin School District in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, launched an online program almost a decade ago, Toni Shughart was the only teacher with any online experience. The program was, admittedly, a mess. Shughart and her colleagues developed their own courses, so material varied from teacher to teacher. Worse, though, the school district contracted with an external provider that created different online platforms for each subject, so the online portal students accessed for math assignments, for example, looked completely different from the portal for science. Confused and frustrated, many students dropped out and teachers were reluctant to sign on.

ednext_jan15_zatynski_img02Since 2010, though, the district has contracted with the Capital Area Online Learning Association (CAOLA), a regional organization that works with districts in and around the state’s capital to improve and support online offerings for K–12 students. CAOLA uses curricula from EdisonLearning, Inc., in part to ensure consistency in course presentation, exam protocols, and tutoring resources.

Shughart splits her time teaching math in brick-and-mortar schools and online. In the online environment, her classes range from middle-school math to calculus, and when she was a full-time online teacher, included more than 250 students. (Classroom teachers typically have up to 150 students.) “It sounds way worse than it is,” Shughart assures. That’s because Edison provides the content and assessments, all aligned with state standards, and Shughart does the rest.

She describes her online role in three parts: role model, facilitator, and content expert. She starts every morning in her home office by 6:30 a.m., checking her e-mail and online grade book. This is when she answers student questions. Immediate feedback is key, she says, because students will move onto the next unit, not knowing entirely how they’ve done on the previous one. (Students need to score an 80 percent or higher to advance, but mistakes beyond that are corrected by the teacher.) Shughart creates PowerPoints and finds additional resources to help students who are stuck on a concept, such as quadratic equations. “That’s the big thing: teaching students that you have to do it for yourself,” she says. “You want them to be independent, but you don’t want them to be stranded, and it’s finding that balance that can be difficult.”

At least three times every day, Shughart meets students online in a virtual classroom, where they work on algebra or geometry problems in real time on an interactive whiteboard. Some students use the time to get a personalized lecture from Shughart at the beginning of every unit. “It has flexibility, Shughart says, “but it has consistency, too, and that’s what kids need.”

The idea of full-time, online schooling is still a new experiment for many Pennsylvania public schools—CAOLA is six years old—but it’s old news for the 16 cyber charters across the state. For more than a decade, these schools have been luring parents and children, promising a more personalized education than their neighborhood public schools can provide. Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, the state’s largest, spends $2 million a year in advertising. “In this day and age, every parent knows somebody who has a kid taking their classes through a cyber charter school,” says Holly Brzycki, who oversees online learning for CAOLA. “The bigger challenge has been the buy-in at the school level with teachers and administrators. They’re the ones who have a hard time shifting their perceptions that online learning can be valid, quality, and the right way for students.”

Rick Attivo, who runs the virtual program for Lower Dauphin High School, which participates in CAOLA, says he was first known as “the guy taking [teachers’] jobs.” The perception built up over the last decade in Pennsylvania and other places has made schooling an either-or situation: face-to-face or online. The thinking goes: send your kids to the trusted neighborhood school or risk having them taught by a robot online. But just as AP courses give students an option to test out of college work and vocational education allows students hands-on work experience, online learning is another way to diversify instructional offerings.

At Lower Dauphin High, enrollment in the online program has doubled every year since its inception in 2009, and in 2013–14, 87 percent of students passed their courses with a score of 70 percent or higher. “You’re giving a kid an opportunity who may have otherwise seriously dropped out or failed,” Attivo says, adding that online learning is simply customized learning for students who don’t need the structure of a seven-period day with teacher-led instruction. “You make a kid sit in a classroom for 45 minutes and if he understands that material (right away), what’s he doing for the other 35 minutes? And the day after that, when the other kids are still trying to get it? … If you can get it, why not just get it and move on?”

Still, Attivo acknowledges that online learning isn’t for everyone. It requires much more self-motivation, diligence, and responsibility than brick-and-mortar learning, where information is spoon-fed to students and instruction is guided and paced by a teacher. Beginning last fall, new online enrollees have to start on campus for two weeks. This, Attivo says, allows him to gauge students’ abilities and motivations for online learning, and determine whether they have the independence and other skills to succeed in a less-structured environment.

He gets frustrated by students who view and treat online learning as less rigorous than brick-and-mortar coursework. Students may think they are anonymous online, and that no one really notices when they miss an assignment—until Attivo shows up on their doorstep, or worse: their workplace. “You’re looking at three bad weeks (of participation) until I’m knocking on your door,” he says and repeats, “Three. That’s a third of a marking period,” as if he should be showing up sooner.

The Solution for Many

Full-time virtual schooling may never become the norm. But in an age where children are growing up on technology and seeking out knowledge on their own—even before they start preschool—the traditional school environment may seem slow, antiquated, and at times, boring. Some mix of online instruction, even if intermingled with face-to-face learning, can challenge students in new ways. “Our kids are not the same kids they were in the 19th century or even the 20th century,” says Kathryn Wicker, an online Spanish and social studies teacher for Northern York County School District, a member of CAOLA. “They are multidevice [children]. You cannot just give them a lecture; they’re not going to be there for a lecture. They need something else. You have to,” she pauses and thinks, “not entertain, but engage.”

Some educators and parents still—and perhaps always will—see online learning as a last resort for struggling students. Steve Ferguson, whose son, Max, graduated from Miami-Dade Online Academy and was accepted to Harvard, assures naysayers that it’s anything but. “These programs are for self-starting students who can go out there, nothing handed to them, and find these opportunities and take these opportunities and avail themselves of everything they have,” he says. He also credits his daughter’s success in college—she graduated cum laude from the University of Florida—to her online schooling, where he says she learned to be independent and more responsible for her learning. “It’s an amazing wake-up call for some of these kids.”

And a savior for others, like Ian Skeggs. Four years ago, when teacher Denee Upshaw first met Ian, he avoided eye contact and wouldn’t talk to her. She calls him “superintelligent,” but a classroom teacher may never have known; he acted out so frequently that his mother brought him to Hillsborough Virtual to get rid of distractions and enable him to work at his own pace. By 5th grade, he was enrolled in 6th-grade language arts. Now 12 years old and in 7th grade, Ian is pulling straight As in every class, including civics, critical thinking, and guitar. “I did so much work yesterday that I got school off today,” Ian proudly told Upshaw one day. His mother clarified: “He did double the work to get today off.” Ian shrugged and explained, “I was bored.” And, for once, school was his relief.

Mandy Zatynski is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. This research was funded through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, but the views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

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