Online learning falls short without teacher-student interaction: study

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File photo from 2015 from an alternative school run by Ombudsman, where students do the vast majority of their work online during half-day sessions.

Photo by Michelle Kanaar

File photo from 2015 from an alternative school run by Ombudsman, where students do the vast majority of their work online during half-day sessions.

A study by two prestigious research groups found that Chicago public high school students who failed Algebra 1 and retook the course online were less likely to pass than students who retook the course in a traditional classroom setting.

The major study raises questions about relying heavily on expensive online credit recovery for struggling students, a strategy that has gained traction nationally. In Chicago, CPS paid two companies more than $600,000 last year to provide credit recovery and online coursework, the bulk of which went to K12 Virtual Schools, LLC, which owns the company whose product was the subject of the study. (CPS did not provide information on how many students take online courses for credit recovery each year.)

In fact it actually cost more to offer the online courses than a traditional, face-to-face class, according to the study.

The findings by the American Institutes for Research and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research are not a red flag that online learning is “bad for kids,” says Jessica Heppen, of AIR, a co-author of the study. “But this really points to the need for continuous improvement, lots of scrutiny and the need to do more research and development, and engagement of all the stakeholders.”

In fact, the study also makes clear that students who fail Algebra 1 usually continue to do poorly academically: Neither type of course had a significant impact on whether students passed future math courses, earned higher scores on the ACT or eventually graduated from high school.

“Kids in this study continued on a low-performing trajectory,” Heppen says.

Despite the findings, CPS officials defended the use of online credit recovery courses, calling them “especially important for students who don’t have the flexibility to take classes after school or in the summer.”

“CPS is committed to meeting our students where they are, and providing flexible instructional methods so that they can move on from high school into college and the workforce,” district spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in a statement.

How human interaction matters

The study focused on Algebra 1, considered a “gateway” course to high school graduation and college success, because of the dismal pass rates in Chicago and in other large urban districts. One-third of CPS ninth-graders fail one or both semesters of Algebra 1. And just 15 percent students who failed both semesters of Algebra 1 during the 2005-2006 school year graduated within four years.

Heppen zeroed in on CPS about five years ago after learning that officials here were conducting their own trials to figure out what online credit recovery programs worked best, and the proper role of in-class mentors. District officials — many of whom have since left— eagerly embraced the study, as did the students who were told they were part of it.

Researchers followed 1,224 ninth-graders at 17 high schools who had failed Algebra 1 and needed to retake the class in 2011 and 2012. About half the students were randomly assigned to traditional face-to-face classes taught by a certified math teacher.

The rest were placed in an online course called Aventa Learning (now called Fuel Education) and would work out of a computer lab under the supervision of an “in-class mentor” who could be a classroom aide, guidance counselor or certified teacher.

Each type of course had about 16 to 20 students per class.

Researchers found that 76 percent of students in the traditional classes passed the course and recovered the credits, compared to just 66 percent of students who took the online course.

However, that 10 percentage point difference was entirely wiped out if the mentor for the online students provided teaching support to students — something they weren’t required to do. (Mentors were only responsible for such tasks as taking attendance and helping with technical problems.) Not surprisingly, the mentors who provided more teaching support tended to be certified math teachers themselves.

Beth Halloran, a spokeswoman for Fuel Education, says this and other studies show that “very high-risk students often need more than just good curriculum and technology to make them successful.”

“There are many factors to success in any class – whether in an online, blended, or a traditional setting – including student engagement in the course, in-class support, course rigor, demographics, student preparedness, comfort with technology, and many others,” Halloran wrote in a statement. “As a company, we have learned a lot about online and blended curriculum and instruction in the last five years. While there is no silver bullet solution for any student, we will continually work to incorporate what we learn into our offerings and our recommended implementation practices in order to improve the student experience in online and blended learning.”

The study also found that students in the online cohort thought the material was more challenging, and the grading expectations less clear, than students in the regular classrooms. Just 31 percent of students in the online courses earned a grade of A, B or C, compared to more than half the students in the face-to-face courses.

Halloran, of FuelEd, says the company has been used in CPS since 2008 for online and blended learning programs.  In addition to credit recovery, the company provides core, elective, and Advanced Placement courses used by thousands of students across 75 schools.