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Report: Online learning needs quality assurance

Programs should focus on five key outcomes-based areas

Nearly 2 million U.S. students take an online course.

Online learning programs must take advantage of new tools and practices to personalize learning and help policy makers gauge the performance of online students, according to a new report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL).

With the growth of U.S. K-12 online learning enrollments rising each year, the report outlines how policy makers and education leaders might thoughtfully implement new performance metrics and quality assurance for these increasingly popular educational environments.

The report emphasizes that policy discussions must address measuring success through outcomes-driven models.

“Personalization and student-centered learning are the keys to driving student success at all levels,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of iNACOL, and co-author of the report. “When education is customized, students remain challenged, supported, and engaged. Teachers using technology tools and high-quality digital content in online learning environments can personalize instruction in ways never before possible, with great potential for moving students further, faster. However, for online learning to reach its true potential, policy makers and leaders must focus squarely on student learning outcomes for examining effectiveness of new models.”

Measuring Quality from Inputs to Outcomes: Creating Student Learning Performance Metrics and Quality Assurance for Online Schools” lays out the need for quality assurance and the challenges this poses for policy makers.

The report provides recommendations and implementation scenarios for key areas of outcomes-based measurement that must be explored more closely.

Proficiency

Proficiency is the most basic of the measures. It evaluates what students know at a point in time in a given subject, and it’s usually associated with grade level. It is a necessary performance metric but insufficient, the report says—especially if proficiency data are solely based on age or grade cohorts, rather than an individual student’s overall proficiency map. Understanding student proficiency is an important starting point for a robust set of indicators.

Individual student growth

Measuring individual student learning based on proficiency, skills, and knowledge gained in a given period of time is a foundational concept behind growth. Examining individual student learning growth is necessary, the report says, because proficiency measures alone will tend to reward schools whose students arrive above grade level and penalize schools whose students arrive below grade level.

This is of particular concern to online schools, because they are often chosen by students who have been unsuccessful in traditional learning environments; are not achieving at grade level; are at-risk, over age, and under-credited; or otherwise not successful in a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

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