A look inside online learning settings in high schools

Students use computers at the Vezina Secondary School in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, Canada, April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie - GF10000384122

High school graduation rates have soared in recent years despite stagnating high school student performance on national assessments, raising concerns about whether these trends reflect real learning advances. The rapid rise in graduation rates has been linked by some to the proliferation of online credit recovery programs, in which students access course content primarily over the internet to repeat failed courses. Subsidized by federal funds and marketed to state and local educational agencies with the promise to increase opportunities for customizing content and individualizing instruction, more than three-quarters of the nation’s school districts are now using online learning to deliver instruction to public school students.

Research evidence stresses the importance of continued live interactions between teachers and students as online instruction is adopted, as well as more collaborative (rather than independent) interactions with online instructional programs. Yet enormous differences in schools’ commitment and capacity to implement and support high-quality online instruction raise the specter of differential access by student race and socioeconomic status to quality learning experiences. Indeed, we find reasons for concern about the implications of online learning for equality in educational outcomes.

In a multiyear study of the implementation of online learning in a large, urban school district, we went inside of high school online instructional settings. We explored which secondary-school students are taking courses online, how they are interacting with the online course system, what structural factors (e.g., physical environment, instructional support) impede or support their access to quality learning opportunities, and how online learning affects whether or not students make academic progress.

A study of online learning in an urban, Midwestern district

We conducted our research in an urban school district in the Midwest. We drew on hundreds of classroom observations and staff interviews, and over seven million records of online instructional sessions linked to student school records. The online learning program that we studied is used in school districts in all 50 states, including eight of the 10 largest districts in the nation. Nearly every high school in our study district enrolled students in online courses in at least one year. By the 2016-17 school year, about 20% of all credits accrued in middle and high schools were completed through this online learning program, and 40% of graduating seniors had completed at least one online course in the system.

Which high school students take courses online, and how are they progressing academically?

We found that indicators of student performance—particularly course failure and suspensions in the prior school year—were consistently the strongest predictors of online course taking in high school. In addition, students in alternative high schools that primarily serve opportunity youth (e.g., pregnant and parenting teens, those transitioning back from expulsion or incarceration) had the highest rates of online course taking in the district. Because these students typically complete their online coursework in computer labs that effectively segregate them from their higher-performing peers, this represents a form of “ability grouping” that may not only shape students’ access to academic content and resources, but also reinforce historical inequities in education processes by race and class. These patterns are even more concerning given our analysis showing that the students who were least prepared academically and had special educational needs were also less likely to engage with and progress in their online courses.

We also examined associations between online course taking and changes in students’ intermediate academic outcomes—credits earned, grade point average (GPA), and test scores—while controlling for factors that influenced how likely they were to take courses online. On average, we found mostly negative associations between online course taking and these intermediate outcomes, especially for grades nine and 10. We did find a positive relationship between online course taking and credits earned and GPA among students in grades 11 and 12 but did not see significant increases in student learning (as measured by reading and math test scores) at any grade level. Indeed, we found that students taking courses online for multiple years experienced penalties in terms of their academic outcomes.

Why wasn’t online learning improving instruction and student learning?

Our classroom observations of online course taking in high schools, interviews with teachers, and discussions of findings with district staff pointed to potential explanations for the largely negative associations between online course taking and student academic outcomes. For example, a consistent concern reported in teacher interviews was a mismatch between the reading levels of students directed to online course taking and the reading levels required for online courses. This was described to us as a “big de-motivator” for student learning effort.

In addition, we frequently observed a lack of active engagement during online instructional sessions, with student headphones plugged into cell phones instead of the computer and “Googling” for answers during the completion of end-of-lesson quizzes or tests. Higher ratios of idle time (i.e., absence of interaction) to total session time in an instructional session were associated with slower progress toward completion and lower course grades.

With larger class sizes, instructors in online learning labs struggled to help students when they were challenged in their online courses, particularly in subjects outside their content expertise. Language supports in the online course-taking system for English learners were inadequate, and teachers also lamented limited accommodations in the online course-taking system (beyond pacing) for students with special educational needs. Teachers rarely had access to information about students’ individual educational plans or extra resources to support them.

Reflecting on the potential for online courses to serve students, teachers commented that without an online course-taking option, some students might not be in school at all. Yet in describing how students came to their classrooms for online course taking, more than one instructor used the term “dumping ground.”

Stepping back, our findings suggest both a need for caution in the rapid expansion of online courses in high schools and a need for stronger scaffolding of support and appropriate targeting of students to realize the benefits of online instruction. While online credit recovery programs potentially provide a cheap technical solution to the problem of low graduation rates, especially for upper classmen who appear to replace failed courses with credits earned online more quickly, our results suggest this may come at the cost of learning, with longer-term implications that we are currently investigating.