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.

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.

Indiana is #1 in parent power

ParentPowerIndex2015 2

Indiana remains the “reformiest” state in the union on the Center for Education Reform’s Parent Power Index.

A much-tested and improved charter school law offers a wide variety of options. A path-breaking, statewide school choice program has attracted tens of thousands of parents who have chosen private schools for their children. Indiana also offers more digital learning opportunities than most states and can boast a pretty decent record of teacher quality measures that put the public in the driver’s seat.

Indiana gets an “A.” Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Utah earn “B” grades on the index.

Online students are ‘telepresent’ — as robots

Thomas Felch uses a telepresence robot to connect with students at Nexus Charter in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Nichole Dobo

Thomas Felch is a “telepresent” teacher at Nexus Academy of Columbus. Photo by Nichole Dobo

Nexus Academy of Columbus, an Ohio charter high school, is experimenting with telepresent teachers, writes Nichole Dobo on the Hechinger Report.

The school employs some “in-the-flesh” teachers, but others teach online courses from a distance, interacting with students  “through a computer screen or phone call,” writes Dobo. Now, the school has two robots.

Thomas Fech, who teaches social studies from his home in Arizona, enjoys using the robot to talk to students and staff in Ohio.

Lights flash on the robot body when a teacher signs in to control the robot. A screen the size of a small tablet computer shows a live video of the teacher’s face. A webcam flips open above the screen, revealing the Cyclops eye that helps the long-distance teacher “drive” around the school. They zip around the school just like any other teacher – except when the robot crashes into walls and doorways. The depth perception and peripheral vision aren’t great, Fech said. But the technological hiccups don’t bother him.

“It’s fun,” Fech said. “I like driving it around and feeling like I am in the school. It’s neat to feel like I am part of the classroom.”

Michigan State has been experimenting with “telepresent” robots that let online graduate students participate in face-to-face classes.

PhD candidates can take educational psychology and educational technology in person or online.  Until now, online students appeared on a wall-mounted screen. They felt like “second-class citizens” in class said John Bell, an associate education professor.B9c1WIwIUAQ0_ap

In the pilot, two online students used KUBI telepresence robots: The online student’s face appears on an iPad screen, and the student can move the pedestal to control his or her point of view. Two others used Double robots, which can move around the room.

“The students were ecstatic,” said Bell. “It changed how they engaged with the class. One student said, ‘This was the first time it mattered to me if I knew the names of the face-to-face students because I could turn and look at them.’ That was a dramatic response.”

A different way to do college

Minerva is a selective liberal arts college without a classroom or campus, reports PBS NewsHour.

The dormitory is on one floor of this old apartment building Nob Hill. Students will spend the first year here, and then the subsequent six semesters living and studying in six different cities around the world. Next year, they head to Buenos Aires and Berlin.

But the professors don’t go with them. In fact, they can be anywhere, including home, because they see their students exclusively online, via a proprietary software platform called the Active Learning Forum. It fosters a face-paced, engaging, seminar-style class. No lectures allowed.

Minerva has partnered with the Keck Graduate Institute, part of the Claremont University Consortium, to gain accreditation.

Competency degrees help working adults

Working adults are turning to online competency-based programs to cut the cost and time of earning a degree.

Virtual ed works in Florida

“Virtual education” is working for Florida high school students, concludes a Program on Education Policy and Governance working paper.

Florida Virtual School (FLVS) students taking Algebra or English I earn do as well or better on state math and reading tests as those in traditional courses, report Matt Chingos of Brookings and Guido Schwerdt of the University of Konstanz.

FLVS has expanded access to Advanced Placement and other courses, the study found.

Technology can support at-risk students’ learning concludes a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). “Well-designed interactive programs allow students to see and explore concepts from different angles using a variety of representations.”

School choice isn’t enough

School choice shouldn’t just be about “which one” but also about “what kind or how much or even whether or not,” writes Michael Mazenko in the Denver Post.

American education is almost exclusively designed to prepare students for university study and bachelor degrees. Even kindergarten teachers talk to kids and parents about “college readiness.” The added emphasis on STEM subjects in recent years narrows the focus even more.

Excluded from the system, however, are students who would prefer to learn a trade and work in skilled labor. Excluded are the kids who focus predominantly on the arts. Excluded are students who won’t sit passively in rows for 12 years completing worksheets and bubbling in standardized tests. Excluded are many children who don’t fit the “common” profile with “common” goals and standardized dreams.

Public education “should be offered as an opportunity,” writes Mazenko, a high school English teacher. It shouldn’t be a “mandate.”

Study: ‘Hybrid’ learning works in college

“Hybrid” or “blended” learning worked well for college students in a University of Maryland experiment. Students taught in the hybrid format earned similar grades and answered more exam questions correctly, compared to students in a traditional course.

In college courses, interactive online learning typically involves video lectures, extensive opportunities for discussion and interaction with instructors and peers, and online assignments and exams. Hybrid forms of such courses combine online learning components with traditional face-to-face instruction.

In this study, college students enrolled in hybrid sections of biology, statistics, pre-calculus, computer science, or communications or in sections that used the traditional face-to-face format.

Disadvantaged and underprepared student did as well in hybrid as in traditional classes.

Interactive online learning has the potential to lower college costs, the researchers believe.

College future

“A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries,” writes Graeme Wood in The Atlantic. Is this the future of college?

The Minerva Project was founded by 39-year-old high-tech entrepreneur Ben Nelson. He thinks his “online Ivy” will remake higher education. An accredited for-profit university, Minerva is starting with 33 students in San Francisco and plans sites in at least six other cities around the world.

The first class is all on scholarship, but future students will pay about $28,000 a year, including room and board. They will move each year to a new city. Buenos Aires, perhaps. Then Mumbai, Hong Kong or New York City.

Minerva will not teach introductory classes. Students are expected to pick up a book or a MOOC and learn that on their own. “Do your freshman year at home,” says Nelson. 

The technology of learning has changed little in the past half millennium, writes Wood.

The easiest way to picture what a university looked like 500 years ago is to go to any large university today, walk into a lecture hall, and imagine the professor speaking Latin and wearing a monk’s cowl. The most common class format is still a professor standing in front of a group of students and talking.

Minerva classes will be small seminars, not massive open online courses. They will use a proprietary online platform developed by a former Harvard dean, Stephen M. Kosslyn, a psychologist. In a test run of the online platform, a French physicist named Eric Bonabeau taught inductive reasoning.

Bonabeau began by polling us on our understanding of the reading, a Nature article about the sudden depletion of North Atlantic cod in the early 1990s. He asked us which of four possible interpretations of the article was the most accurate. . . . Within seconds, every student had to provide an answer, and Bonabeau displayed our choices so that we could be called upon to defend them.

Bonabeau led the class like a benevolent dictator, subjecting us to pop quizzes, cold calls, and pedagogical tactics that during an in-the-flesh seminar would have taken precious minutes of class time to arrange. He split us into groups to defend opposite propositions—that the cod had disappeared because of overfishing, or that other factors were to blame. . . . Bonabeau bounced between the two groups to offer advice as we worked. After a representative from each group gave a brief presentation, Bonabeau ended by showing a short video about the evils of overfishing. (“Propaganda,” he snorted, adding that we’d talk about logical fallacies in the next session.) The computer screen blinked off after 45 minutes of class.

The “continuous period of forced engagement” was “exhausting,” writes Wood. There was no time to think about larger aspects of the material, “because I had to answer a quiz question or articulate a position.”

I was forced, in effect, to learn. If this was the education of the future, it seemed vaguely fascistic. Good, but fascistic.

Minerva will attract people who are good at learning independently, writes Jordan Weissmann in Slate. Nelson expects Americans to make up only a tenth of Minerva’s students. The model will provide an alternative for well-off Chinese and Indians who want an American-style education but can’t get into elite U.S. universities.