Donnell-Kay Foundation fellow Yilan Shen says online education is a key pathway for some students but hard conversations are needed about how to ensure the quality of online programs.
Online learning has been around for nearly two decades in Colorado, and it is due time to ensure that this is a high quality education option.
The knowledge and experience we have gained over the years can now inform next steps to improve the quality of this education option. In the last year, a series of studies have built a better understanding of online learning in the state:
- “Digital Learning in Colorado: Opportunities and Recommendations” captures the potential of digital learning in the context of many other complex policy issues like data challenges, funding, and accountability.
- “A Study of Online Learning: Perspectives of Online Learners and Educators” reports on survey results from online students, parents, and educators.
- “Characteristics of Colorado’s Online Students” examines the students that are taking advantage of online learning.
- “Blended Learning in Rural Colorado: Status and Strategies for Expansion” researches the disparity in access to broadband and blended learning across the state.
Full-time online learning is the most prominent form of online learning in Colorado. These schools offer a different education option for students who have struggled in traditional settings, have unique needs that demand flexibility, or whose parents choose it as a substitute or supplement to homeschooling. The demand for online schools is strong, with enrollment increasing from about 3,000 in 2003 to over 16,000 today.
Despite this dramatically increased demand, outcomes for full-time online schools still lag behind their brick and mortar counterparts. The graduation rate for online schools is consistently below that of non-online schools and online elementary students perform worse on reading and math assessments than their non-online counterparts. Most of the full-time online schools in the state are classified as turnaround or priority improvement (the two lowest classifications), and despite increasing demand, they face closure if they do not improve their academic outcomes.
However, simply closing these schools would be a disservice for those students who thrive academically in online settings and whose families find this option to be the most suitable for their needs. For example, due to the outpouring of support from the school’s parents and students, the Adams 12 Five Star board recently extended the Colorado Virtual Academy charter contract for one more year, despite the ongoing performance and management problems. The state and the individual schools owe it to the students to ensure a quality education – and many of the students are not receiving it.
Policy levers recommended in the recent report by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, such as expanding statewide broadband access, creating better data systems, implementing a multiple student count date system and ensuring funding transparency and flexibility, can drive the conversation around next steps for online learning. At the same time, there needs to be an earnest and straightforward conversation about the quality and outcomes of full-time online learning. Even if online schools provide a last resort for students who have exhausted other options in trying to graduate high school, what good is the diploma if the education is not adequately preparing them to succeed in college or careers and beyond?
Tracking quality for online education does present unique challenges, but this should not prevent us from addressing the issue. As a part of the conversation to address quality of online education, we must examine difficult questions like the following:
- How can online schools provide equitable access while also ensuring they are targeting those students most likely to succeed in this setting?
- How can online schools utilize their flexible environments to tailor specific interventions to their students with varying needs?
- How can the state or schools provide more useful transparent performance data to parents?
- What professional development needs to be offered to build the capacity of full-time online school teachers and principals to better meet the needs of the students their schools are attracting?
Since parents and students often choose schools for reasons other than academic achievement, they are the responsibilities of the state, authorizers, and school operators to ensure that the programs they offer will be a better option for the students that seek them out. Online schools cannot continue to enroll students who have already struggled at multiple schools and expect them to succeed just because it is a novel setting. The time to ask the hard questions about improving full-time online learning is now.