May 21, 2012

A Passing Grade

For schools with limited course offerings, online classes show promise

Much is made of online education and its capacity to reach students around the globe. With resources like the Khan Academy, anyone with an Internet connection can access self-paced instruction on thousands of topics. In other instances, online classes led by professional teachers help break down the traditional classroom, opening it up to direct participation by students regardless of where they sit. With cases like this, more and more schools across the nation are making online learning part of today’s K-12 experience.

But can an online learning environment compete with bricks and mortar schoolrooms when it comes to preparing kids for future coursework, college, and career? A recent bit of research suggests it can.

The Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI), which is part of a network of ten laboratories producing education research for policymakers and educators, recently released a report documenting a research study focused on 8th grade students and algebra. (The REL Program is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education.) The report details an effort to provide online algebra instruction to students in 68 schools in Maine and Vermont, most of which were in rural communities. Students who were judged “algebra ready” took an online course instead of the general math course typically offered in their middle schools. Those students ultimately scored higher on a test of algebra knowledge. They were also about twice as likely to take advanced math courses as they transitioned to high school.

These findings are important for a couple of reasons, not least of which is the fact that many public middle schools do not have the capacity to offer algebra classes to their 8th grade students. This is typically due to lack of funds, staffing, or even low enrollment. And not having access to introductory algebra in middle school can have a cumulative impact. Prior studies have shown that kids who take an Algebra I course in the 8th grade have more success in math throughout high school and college than their peers who take the class later.

The report’s findings are also helpful for education policymakers who are exploring and implementing online learning in districts around the country—and in subjects across the curricular spectrum. An online framework similar to the one used for the Algebra I students could serve as a model for efforts in other subjects. Online instructors and participating students were in routine contact thanks to messaging; problem sets and quizzes delivered immediate feedback to the instructors and students. Rural students who were participating in the online Algebra I course instead of their schools’ general math class often had the support of their classroom teachers who served as proctors for the virtual class. The report also noted that students who took the online Algebra I course “did not experience any negative side effects on their end-of-year general math achievement.”

Access to great teaching and learning is a powerful indicator of student achievement, college and career readiness. Today, online instruction can play an important role in ensuring that the kids who are ready for more can get it. This holds true for those in rural communities as well as kids in urban environments, students in under-resourced schools, and in underserved communities across the country and around the globe. That’s part of the beauty behind the Internet, virtual learning environments, and the developing market for education resources—so many of which are free.

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