NACOL just released a report addressing the promising practices of online schools working with at-risk students. Based on a study of 5 online or blended learning schools, they came up with the following key lessons demonstrated by those successful schools:
Motivating students who have failed in the traditional classroom setting is a key to success for credit recovery programs. The flexible and self-paced nature of online courses can motivate; these attributes can also remove the social stigma of credit recovery. Online courses may be more engaging to some students than traditional face-to-face classes. In addition, programs that use online courses can address mobility issues of students who move regularly from one school in the district to another.
This is the hardest part of our job. We need to develop better methods of engaging students. Florida Virtual School states they pass 90% of their at-risk kids in credit recovery courses. Does that mean online schools should just design separate credit recovery courses in addition to mainline and advanced courses? There is no separation at our school and we pass half that amount.
Online learning is particularly well suited for students recovering credit because it allows for individualized instruction, both by the teacher and through the use of course management technology. Online curriculum must be rigorous to ensure that students are learning the material, and not simply moving through the course. Diagnostic testing that allows students to demonstrate mastery of the elements of a subject that they learned in their previous attempt to pass the course, and to move on to the parts of the course that they need to focus on, keeps students engaged.
I’ve long been a proponent of diagnostic testing but none of our courses currently offer this. The rigor of a course has to be enforced by the administration. Individualizing instruction (and assessments) is the role of the instructor but if your school employs instructors who are trying to teach traditionally online than this won’t happen at your school.
The self-paced aspect of online courses is particularly valuable to at-risk students, who may associate education with difficulties and stress, compounded by learning deadlines imposed by arbitrary calendars or school hours.
This is also one of the most difficult aspects. Often these students do not have basic organizational skills or the ability to evaluate course responsibilities and schedule accordingly.
Providing credit for work or community service allows students to be engaged in a valuable activity outside of school and to have this experience count towards graduation. It also
motivates students to complete the program.
Most online programs serving credit recovery and at-risk students—but not all—have a
significant face-to-face component. The blended approach is important because it provides
expanded student support and face-to-face contact. The online component—whether fully
online or blended—provides 21st century skills to a group of students who often have less
than average exposure to computers and technology.
We have kids come in once a week for four hours of face-to-face contact. Should we increase this to make it “significant?”
Programs that keep students from dropping out or attract students back into the school
system may pay for themselves—or at least defray costs—by capturing the state public
education dollars tied to those students. Online programs are particularly scalable and able
to expand more easily than programs based entirely on brick-and-mortar classrooms.
Success stories and anecdotes regarding the benefits and value of online learning for both
at-risk students and the schools serving them abound. The need exists for federal funding of
quantitative research in this area.