Pilot of new online classes earn mixed reviews from principals

An ambitious pilot program that’s bringing online classes into dozens of public schools is getting mixed reviews from principals.

The pilot, known as iLearn, is part of the city’s $50 million Innovation Zone, or iZone — an initiative the Department of Education is touting as a strategy to improve schools during budget-conscious times. Funded through a combination of Race to the Top winnings, private donations and $10 million in tax dollars, the iZone is paying for experiments in online learning, staffing, and school time in 80 schools this year. Half of those schools are taking part in iLearn and are now offering students online Advanced Placement classes, credit recovery, and “blended” instruction that combines online classes with face-to-face instruction.

Though iLearn hasn’t earned much attention from the press, it accounts for roughly a quarter of the city’s iZone spending, or $13 million over the next four years. Mid-way through the school year, principals of iLearn schools report results that vary based on whether they’re experimenting with advanced courses or programs for their most struggling students.

Principals of small schools where there’s often too few students to fill AP classes are largely enthusiastic about the new programs. For them, iLearn is an add-on that helps their high-achievers.

But principals of schools that are experimenting with online credit recovery are more ambivalent. Putting a student who’s already failed his Algebra class in front of an Algebra credit recovery program works if the student is motivated, they’ve found. But schools are discovering that iLearn programs aren’t doing as well with students who need a teacher pushing them along or who can’t read well enough to use the programs.

When I talked to Alisa Berger, the co-principal of the NYCiSchool, “transformative” and “life-changing,” were a few of the words she used to describe iLearn. Berger has added four AP classes to her course offerings. For class discussions, her students use Skype to talk to a teacher at another New York City public school, creating in effect a virtual classroom.

Nancy Amling, principal of the Hudson High School for Learning Technologies, which is part of the blended learning pilot, said she’d been able to offer her small class of ninth graders online classes in five different languages. As the leader of a new small school, this frees her from having to hire a language teacher, though she said she’d eventually like to have one.

But principals across the city agreed that schools offering online credit recovery have had a more mixed experience.

“With the credit recovery model you have kids who have struggled, and to think that the computer is going to teach it to them when a live teacher couldn’t is a harder reach,” Berger said. “It needs a lot more thought than an AP course, where kids are intrinsically more motivated just because they signed up for the extra work.”

At Hillcrest High School in Queens, Principal Stephen Duch is using online credit recovery for students in his Senior Academy — a kind of transfer school within his massive 3,200 student high school. The program helps 80 seniors who are in danger of not graduating at the end of their fourth year.

Duch said that for more than half of these students, the credit recovery programs offered by Aventa and Compass — two of the most popular providers among the city’s schools — are letting them make up classes at a faster rate.

“These programs work extremely well with students who are near grade level in reading because they can go through these processes independently,” he said. “But as soon as the child has a significant delay in reading, then these online programs become problematic because they need an incredible amount of support to be able to move through it successfully.”

Because schools can only buy a limited number of “seats” in the online classes, Hillcrest holds tryouts to see which students are motivated enough to make good use of the programs. Those who aren’t and those who can’t read at a high enough level are put back in traditional classroom settings where they can make up their credits.

A spokesman for the Department of Education, Matthew Mittenthal, said the city plans to address this problem by buying “a range of content that spans grade levels so that students can be exposed to material appropriate to their reading level, regardless of grade and age.”

“In some cases, technology will be used to read text aloud and support students who are below grade level,” he said.

A principal who asked to remain anonymous, and whose school is part of the credit recovery pilot, said he planned to try the pilot for one more year, but harbored doubts that the online courses were better than his teachers’ regular credit recovery classes.

“I’m a little suspicious of this as good teaching,” he said. “It sounds exciting, it sounds sexy, it sounds modern, it sounds thoughtful,” he said. “Part of that is because there’s been very little interest in teaching and learning and a great interest in credit accumulation and data. This will speak well to credit accumulation and data.”

At the same time, he said, he’s been pleasantly surprised by his students’ preference of the online classes to their textbooks.

“I’ll say that in defense of the program, one of the things we’re learning from this is that the children we have seem to be more facile at thumbing through an online text to go back and get notes than they are a book,” he said.

Duch said that he believes the online credit recovery courses are more rigorous than Hillcrest’s earlier efforts with credit recovery. Because the courses test students at different points and don’t let them proceed unless they pass, they eliminate a teacher’s leniency, he said.

“There’s hard data to show the kid had to master this,” Duch said. “You’re not leaving it to the individual teacher to be able to say he did a sufficient job.”

Though the online classes cut out this problem of teachers rewarding students’ effort, they haven’t eliminated the problem of students passing their classes and then failing their Regents exams. David Ricaurte, director of Hillcrest’s Senior Academy, said that students who take online credit recovery classes still prepare for their Regents with classroom teachers because the material in the online classes is often different than what appears on the test.

Some of principals’ reservations about iLearn stem from its early glitches, most of which were dealt with by mid-October, principals said. Initially, Cisco agreed to give iLearn schools free access to an online portal it was creating for commercial purposes, which would have allowed teachers and students to sign onto all their online courses from the same place. But when it became clear that Cisco couldn’t build the platform in time for school to start, the city decided to quickly create one itself.

In September, some iLearn students couldn’t sign into their classes. The rough start meant that some schools abandoned the pilot for a couple months while the problems were sorted out and then started back up again mid-way through the semester.

Next year, more schools will join the iLearn pilot, which is overseen by its Executive Director Craig Butz and Arthur VanderVeen, the DOE’s Chief of Innovation Research & Development. According to a DOE spokesman, 323 schools have applied to join the pilot next year.

Schools with online credit recovery:
Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School
Curtis High School
High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology
Hillcrest HS
Innovation Diploma Plus
New Dorp High School
Port Richmond High School
Queens Academy HS
South Bronx Preparatory: A College Board School

Schools with online advanced placement classes:
ACORN High School for Social Justice
Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy
Bronx Leadership Academy II
Brooklyn College Academy
Brooklyn Generation School
Collegiate Institute for Math & Science
Eagle Academy for Young Men
ELLIS Preparatory Academy
Gramercy Arts High School
Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics
High School of Arts and Technology
High School of Arts and Technology
Lower Manhattan Arts Academy
Marta Valle
Mott Hall High School
New World High School
NYC iSchool
N.Y.C. Lab School for Collaborative Studies
Renaissance High School of Musical Theater & Technology
Robert H. Goddard High School of Communication Arts and Technology
Scholars’ Academy
South Bronx Preparatory: A College Board School

Schools using the “blended” model:
Academy for Language and Technology
Bronx Career and College Preparatory High School
Brownsville Academy High School
City Polytechnic High School
East Bronx Academy for the Future
Global Tech Prep
Hudson High School of Learning Technologies
Murray Hill Academy
NYC iSchool
Olympus Academy
Queens Collegiate