Freshman year for free: Don’t show up

“Free college” is already here, for students who can handle online learning. Modern States Education Alliance‘s Freshman Year for Free kicked off this fall: Students can earn a year of no-cost college credit via edX classes.

With funding from philanthropist Steven B. Klinsky, Modern States has given edX the money to develop more than 30 entry-level college courses, taught by “some of the world’s leading universities and professors,” according to the New York-based nonprofit.

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In addition to online lectures, each course includes quizzes and tests. Textbooks and other learning materials will be provided online at no charge.

Courses will prepare students to pass Advanced Placement or College Level Examination Program” (CLEP) tests offered by the College Board. Courses include Sociology, Chemistry, Macroeconomics, Marketing, Business Law and more.

The Texas State University System is encouraging nontraditional (adult) students to skip freshman year by using the edX classes, reports the Texas Trib.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) tend to have very low completion rates, especially for less-educated students. However, that’s partly due to the uncertain payoff: Those who stick with the course typically don’t earn credit.

Virtual competence

A “virtual” student in New Hampshire, Emily Duggan, 16, has time to dance 12 hours a week.

All-online schooling is growing in popularity, despite weak performance by students, writes Hechinger’s Chris Berdik in WIRED.

However, New Hampshire’s self-paced Virtual Learning Academy Charter School is an online success story, he writes. With a “focus on building strong student-teacher relationships,” VLACS boasts full-time virtual students who do as well or better than the New Hampshire average in reading and math and on the SAT.

Most virtual schools are paid based on enrollment, leading to arguments about whether a student is really “in attendance.” VLACS, a nonprofit, is paid when students show mastery of specific skills and abilities. Students use “a personalized blend of traditional lesson plans, offline projects and real-world experiences” to learn “competencies.”

Students do the bulk of their learning independently. They make their own way through online lessons, digital texts and multimedia, and follow links to extra, explanatory resources. They upload all their work. Yet the students and parents interviewed for this story said that they have more one-on-one interactions with teachers than they did in traditional schools.

(PE/wellness teacher Lisa) Kent opened her laptop to show the dashboard that tracks her students. She can sort them by grade or by the last time they logged into class, submitted work or checked in with her. If a student has been inactive for more than a week, Kent will reach out to see if everything’s OK.

VLACS doesn’t assume parents will serve as teachers and tutors.

Students are also matched with a guidance counselor and an academic adviser who help them create and follow a “C3” (short for college, career and citizenship) readiness plan. . . . tutoring is available through four “skills coaches.”

New Hampshire requires high schools to offer credit for mastering competencies rather than “seat time,” writes Berdik. That opened the door to VLACS.

Here are three recommendations for improving online charter schools.

Competency-based funding would place the emphasis where it belongs — on student learning and mastery, rather than on whether a child is logged into a computer,” said Fordham’s Chad Aldis in response to a proposal to change Ohio’s funding of virtual schools.

Cheap college is better than ‘free’

Hillary Clinton’s “free college” proposal  — no tuition at in-state public universities for families earning up to $125,000 — is proving to be popular with middle-class voters. But it would prop up the old, expensive, unsustainable higher ed model, writes Julia Freeland Fisher on CNN.

The way to make college affordable is to encourage alternatives, writes Fisher, education research director for the Christensen Institute.

For example, short, intensive coding “bootcamps” cost students $5,000 to $15,000 — sometimes payable only after they find jobs. Employment rates are strong:  General Assembly reports “a 99% job placement rate into a student’s field of study.”

. . . Southern New Hampshire University’s College For America (CfA) has managed to offer online competency-based degrees at just $3,000 per year — a fraction of the cost of a traditional brick-and-mortar degree. CfA partners directly with employers to design their curriculum — ensuring that students graduate with skills that the labor market actually values — and allows students to move through coursework at their own pace.

These alternatives focus on workforce preparation, but “there is no reason innovations can’t usher in new offerings that allow students to explore the world and their place in it, or to study a range of humanities and the liberal arts,” writes Fisher. “But there is also no reason those experiences should be priced into behemoth traditional institutions’ broken business models.”

Virtual charters: Can they be saved?

Students at all-online “virtual” charter schools do significantly worse than comparable students at brick-and-mortar schools, concludes a 2015 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Math gains were so poor it was “as though the student did not go to school for the entire year,” CREDO director Macke Raymond told reporters.

In an Education Next forum, Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, argues that Online Charters Expand Learning Optionswhile Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, counters that Online Charters Mostly Don’t Work.

Both agree that all-online learning works only for highly motivated, self-disciplined students or those with strong parental support.

Both call for linking funding of virtual schools to students’ performance. Virtual charters attract very mobile students. The traditional model often gives virtual schools a full year’s funding for a student who gives it a try for a few weeks or months, then moves on.

They disagree on the validity of the CREDO study.

CREDO doesn’t account adequately for virtual students’ high mobility and learning problems before they enroll, Vander Ark argues.

Better measures of academic growth are needed, he writes. These “would include examining the performance of new and returning students, as well as that of on-time and late-enrolled students; defining full-academic year students; and looking at longitudinal student performance, such as progress toward graduation in 4, 5, and 6 years.”

CREDO found virtual students “showed stronger performance both before and after their tenure in virtual schools,” responds Richmond. Other studies also “have documented dismal outcomes in virtual schools, including low course-completion rates and higher-than-average school dropout rates.”

Last month, three national charter school groups released a report calling for “a better regulatory framework to govern full-time virtual charter schools.”

Beyond schools: How will kids learn?

Technology is ramping up the possibilities for out-of-school learning, predicts Mike Petrilli.

Venture capital is flowing into “apps, games, and tutoring platforms that are ‘student-facing’ and being sold direct-to-consumer (or available for free),” he writes.

Khan Academy was drawing 6.5 million unique users per month in the U.S. in 2014, according to a study by SRI.

I’m particularly intrigued by its new partnership with the College Board, which allows students to use their PSAT or SAT results to find free, targeted help through Khan Academy. In the lead-up to the new SAT, administered for the first time in March, over one million students used Khan’s official SAT practice modules. And it wasn’t just affluent kids in hothouse high schools logging on; usage was even across all major demographic groups.

For young kids, PBS Kids provides video content, games, and interactive features, writes Petrilli.  His eight-year-old son “has learned much more science from Wild Kratts and the like than from the Montgomery County Public Schools.”

Other good sources are Brain Pop and Brain Pop Jr. and National Geographicboth for videos and for interactive activitiesTinybop has created several “strange and beautiful” apps that make learning fun for preschoolers.

Older kids can get a lot out of Ted Ed or the Art of Problem Solving or Duolingo (for learning languages); many younger kids enjoy the Age of Learning’s products. . . . We at Fordham have even tried our hand at compiling good streaming videos from across the interwebs. And of course, don’t forget about the learning potential of games like Minecraft.

Funders and reformers could offer their own content-rich curriculum with “videos, games, social interactivity, Petrilli writes. “Not surprisingly, that’s what the “teach coding” people are busy doing.”

I like Petrilli’s idea for “a website where an elementary or middle school student could enter his standardized test score, and maybe his GPA, and be informed by an algorithm what kind of a college he’d be on track to attend.” Students on the track to remedial community college courses could be pointed to learning resources to help them catch up.

PBS KIDS has announced its summer schedule with new episodes of Ready Jet Go!, Odd Squad and Nature Cat. Parents can find free games, activities,  educational apps and videos at

Online, blended schools face critics

Photograph of Elizabeth Novak-Galloway
Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, center, seen with mother Gabriela Novak and sister Kira, 8, was pulled from a K12 school by her dissatisfied mother. Photo: Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group

Virtual (all-online) and blended learning schools aren’t doing as well as traditional schools, concludes a National Education Policy Center report. Performance is especially low at for-profit schools, researchers said.

The report recommends slowing or halting the growth of virtual and blended schools, writing rules that specify a student-teacher ratio and other measures, reports Hechinger’s Nichole Dobo.

Officials at K12 Inc., a for-profit company that operates a significant share of the nation’s online schools, said they had noticed flaws in the data – such as missing schools and inaccurate demographic numbers. They took issue with the report’s methodology, saying that high turnover rates in online schools make it difficult to compare these schools to more traditional models.

K12’s California Virtual Academies were accused of “cashing in on failure” by the San Jose Mercury News after a recent investigation. In particular, graduation rates are very low.

I think it’s hard to compare students who choose all-online schools with those in traditional schools. It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s apples and zucchini. Overall, though, research suggests that learning online requires maturity and motivation — or, at least, a parent’s close supervision. Students who couldn’t succeed with an in-person teacher aren’t likely to do better with a virtual teacher.

The report is way off base on blended learning, responds Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, who questions what’s counted as a “blended learning school.”

Furthermore, “Does blended learning work?” is the wrong question, she writes.

That is tantamount to asking: Do textbooks work? Do lectures work? Do small group interactions work? Of course these delivery methods—like blended learning—vary widely in their effectiveness depending on how they are implemented. Instead, we need to evaluate specific blended learning models relative to acute problems that individual school systems are trying to solve.

Blended learning — a mix of online and face-to-face instruction — is spreading rapidly, she writes. By 2019, half of high school courses will incorporate online learning with “the vast majority of these using blended learning instructional models.” Christensen researchers predict.

Udemy’s top teacher earned $6.8 million

More than 10 million people — mostly working adults — have taken a Udemy course, the company reports. The online learning platform helps professionals learn workplace skills — and offers personal development courses in music, fitness and other fields, reports Time. It’s not trying to compete with traditional higher education.

Rob Percival, a former high school teacher in Britain, has earned $6.8 million from his Udemy web-development course. Entrepreneur Rob Percival Picture:Richard Patterson

Rob Percival, a former high school teacher in Britain, has earned $6.8 million from his Udemy web-development course. Photo: Richard Patterson

The platform’s instructors can monetize their skills. The most viewed course on web development has earned $6.8 million for Rob Percival, a former high school teacher in Britain. He spent three months creating the course, says Percival. “The amount of good you can do on this scale is staggering. It’s a fantastic feeling knowing that it’s out there, and while I sleep people can still learn from me.”


CREDO: Virtual charter students learn less

Most virtual K-12 charter schools learn significantly less than students at traditional public schools, according to a new CREDO study.

The average full-time online student lost 72 days of reading progress, on average, and a full year in math, the study concluded.

“It is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year,” said Margaret E. Raymond, project director at Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO.

The study looked at virtual students in 17 states and the District of Columbia between 2008 and 2013. It did not include students in “blended learning” programs that combine online and teacher-led instruction.

Nina Rees, who runs the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called for “dramatically” improved oversight and closing low-performing virtual charters. One option could be “funding full-time virtual charter public school students via a performance-based funding system.”

Virtual schooling works for some students, said Rees in a statement. The study found 30 to 40 percent of full-time online students do as well or better than traditional students.

Center for Education Reform questioned the study’s “virtual twin” methodology used to create a control group. “Many parents choose online options for their children based on exceptional circumstances and situations, ranging from safety and bullying concerns, to academic issues, to social and emotional issues, medical reasons, and more,” CER said.

A different Stanford study found that “marginal” DeVry University students learn less in online courses than traditional courses.

A for-profit university, DeVry offers both online and in-person courses with the same syllabus, textbook, assignments, quizzes, tests, and grading rubrics.

High achievers may learn just as much online, but, for lower-achieving students, taking a course online “reduces student learning, as measured by course grades, and lowers the probability of persistence in college,” researchers concluded. Procrastination is the likely suspect.

Via Jay P. Greene’s Blog.

How student aid could ruin coding boot camps

Coding “boot camps” and “academies” have sprung up to get smart people into high-paying programming jobs quickly. Offering federal student aid to boot camp students could “suck most of the innovation out,” warns Alexander Holt, a New America policy analyst.

Participants take part in HTML500, a course which teaches computer coding skills, in Vancouver, B.C. Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015 HE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Coding students in a Vancouver boot camp. Photo: Jonathan Hayward, Canadian Press

Bootcamps succeed because “their price must match labor market demands or outcomes,” writes Holt. App Academy students pay no tuition. They “pay a percentage of their first year’s income instead.”

However, federal financial is based on enrollment, not results, he writes. Instead of linking prices to student outcomes, schools will be able to raise prices regardless of their job placement rates.

There once was another highly innovative industry that federal aid ruined. For-profit companies using online distance learning tools were seen as a brand new way to educate students at lower costs (online education is still seen as the future by many, and it may be). What we failed to understand was that online programs were only innovative when they had to survive in a real market. In 2006, schools were no longer required to teach at least 50% of the program on campus, thus opening up the crazy online degrees we have now (that also exist at prestigious universities) with little or no evidence they lead to positive outcomes for students.

The Department of Education wants to help low-income students access high-quality, innovative programs, Holt writes. “But what starts as expanding access ends with bad actors taking advantage of federal dollars with no strings attached.”

Public: 30% of time on computers is OK

How much class time should students spend learning via computers? Thirty percent is about right, says the public in an Education Next survey. Teachers say 20 percent. Blended-learning experts said that about 40 percent of classroom time should be spent “receiving instruction independently through or on a computer.”