As online learning becomes more of a strategic resource for K-12 and higher-education institutions to supplement traditional courses, education leaders are starting to discuss how online learning can help support minority students’ instructional needs.
In a recent webinar hosted by the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), titled “Increasing Academic Offerings for Minority Students through Online Learning,” panelists Ray Rose, director of programs at MentorNet, Sharnell Jackson, chief eLearning officer for the Chicago Public Schools, and Themy Sparangis, chief technology officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District, discussed how schools can leverage online learning programs to provide high-quality educational opportunities for underrepresented populations.
“We’re trying to ensure equitable access for all students,” said Sparangis. “Maybe some school courses don’t have enough enrollment, so we can offer that online. Maybe some schools don’t have enough educators to teach on a specific subject, so we offer that online.”
Jackson believes that online learning also can help with dropout recovery and kids who are currently in juvenile detention centers.
“Online can be an alternative to school if either you physically cannot attend school or if a traditional classroom setting does not fit your specific needs. With online learning, a student can finish their high school degree, make up credits, and enrich traditional curriculum,” she explained.
In fact, Jackson said, out of all the high schools in Illinois that implement online learning, a predominantly Hispanic high school has the highest online learning pass rate. This school has managed to recover dropouts and has encouraged parents raising children and/or working full-time to enroll as well.
Panelists stressed the need for student and teacher training in online learning and the need for teachers to be present and/or available during online course sessions for the courses to succeed. They also noted that, with minority and underrepresented student populations in particular, it’s especially important to provide equitable access to computers, broadband internet connections, and other technologies necessary to take advantage of online courses.
Along with offering scholarships and tech literacy courses to both students and teachers, Sparangis suggests making computers as available as possible to students.
“Have before- and after-school programs, offer computers during free periods, or ask school librarians to make time available during non-traditional school hours,” said Sparangis.
Although a high-quality online course will make the instructor available to answer questions or address concerns, Jackson believes it’s a good practice to support this instruction with a face-to-face teacher or moderator.
“Teachers who are trained in moderating online courses should be available as well. Not only will this help with communication and ease of learning, but for those students who might not have good retention, or might not have good study skills, the teacher can keep them on task,” she said.
According to Jackson, various studies of online learning conducted by the Chicago Public Schools show that success rates hovered at 70 percent when a teacher was not in the classroom to monitor and manage students. But when teachers or moderators were present, that success rate jumped to 83 percent.
“Having a teacher in the class while they’re taking online courses is also helpful because then he or she can take attendance and verify who’s taking the course and fulfilling credits,” said Jackson.
Jackson also recommends that educators who are teaching online classes communicate with students’ traditional classroom teachers, so they can better learn—and cater to—these students’ needs.
“I’m not talking about replacing teachers,” said Jackson. “Expectations for teachers are still the same even in online learning: help kids become proficient, college-prepared students. Online learning students must achieve and excel in their studies just like in a traditional classroom format, but online learning can increase communication and engagement, as well as provide individualized learning options.”
Collecting and analyzing data on demographics and student performance also is a key to successful online learning.
Sparangis and Jackson explained that their districts have eight to nine years of longitudinal data on their high school students. These data are used to inform instructional practices and conduct analyses of the online learning process, to help identify where students are struggling and what their needs are.
“We use these data to continuously improve the learning process,” said Sparangis. “We can see the length of time a student has been connected, if that student was alone or participating in a group, how long it took the student to complete a section, how many times the student logged on and off … [the data cover] every aspect.”
Above all, panelists said, educators must realize that minority students can achieve at the same high level as other students—and that online learning is not a lesser version of traditional learning.
“Online learning isn’t just some remedial course we’re giving to minority or disadvantaged kids,” said Rose. “It’s a high-quality education that’s helping to meet individual student needs.”
Jackson argued that sometimes online courses are even more rigorous than traditional courses, because they are more interactive, require technology literacy, and provide a host of online resources for a student to take advantage of.
Sparangis said an internal study conducted by Los Angeles schools after the second year of implementing online learning showed that performance rates of online learning students, who were mostly Latino, were just as good, if not better, on state tests than students who learned in a traditional setting.
“Minority students need to be encouraged, challenged, and motivated. They’re becoming disenfranchised from education. We need to stimulate them more, and we need to help them meet their needs. Online learning could help meet some of those needs,” concluded Jackson.