District and school-level leaders weigh in on what makes a successful online learning program

online-learning-practicesThough still in its adoption infancy, online learning in K-12 schools and districts has been around long enough for tech-savvy education leaders to have key insights into what makes an online learning program successful. Thanks to a new national survey, most school and district leaders agree that there are five distinct best practices for online learning.

The survey, conducted by MDR’s EdNet on behalf of K12 Inc. in the spring of 2013, sought to determine best practices and lessons learned when implementing online learning programs in K-12 schools through in-depth responses from superintendents, assistant superintendents, curriculum directors, principals, and exemplary teachers.

Of the 165 respondents who offer online learning programs, 82 percent offer an online credit recovery program; 81 percent offered online courses in 2013 versus just 66 percent in 2012; and full-time online programs in districts with more than 10,000 students grew from 27 percent in 2012 to 48 percent in 2013.

Respondents explained that online learning programs are a great way to boost graduation rates, address multiple student populations, expand their course catalogs, and personalize learning.

However, unless certain characteristics and practices are in place, many online learning programs are not only mediocre, but can fail within in a short period of time.

(Next page: The five online learning best practices)

Pooling together their experiences of what can make or break a successful online learning program (in a broad scope), respondents outlined five best practices for other education leaders to consider:

1. Reporting tools/progress monitoring.

According to the survey, reporting and progress monitoring tools are “critical,” since there can be less face-to-face interaction between the teacher and the student, and the teachers can’t rely on a student’s verbal responses or body language to indicate their level of understanding.

These tools are also necessary for intervention, as well as to provide “immediate and specific feedback that teachers can use to personalize instruction,” said respondents.

2. Availability of teachers to assist struggling students.

“The tools are only helpful if they are used by the staff,” noted Ivonne Glenn, assistant director of alternative education at Salinas Union High School District in Salinas, Calif.

For Glenn, the most successful teachers are those who build relationships with students, which is why her district has on-site mentors who not only teach the students how to use the technology and take an online class, they also make sure they can log in.

Mary Fluharty, coordinator of online learning for Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) in VA also agrees that the availability of teachers to intervene with struggling students is vital.

To ensure that students taking online courses can receive help, ACPS provides three tiers of support: an online teacher, a content-specific teacher at the satellite campus or a learning mentor on the main campus; and an online tutor available 24/7.

3. Instructors well-trained in delivering online courses.

Respondents with experience in all types of online programs rated this practice as “extremely important.”

According to Laura Belnap, director of Utah Online School K-12—an online program that is part of the Washington County School District in St. George, UT, but open to K-12 students across the state—effective online teachers not only need to know how to teach an online course, they also need to have particular personality traits and communication skills.

“Hiring online teachers is not the same as hiring traditional teachers,” explained Belnap. “Online teachers need to be self-motivated, tech-savvy, and possess strong people skills. We ask questions during the hiring interviews to make sure our online teachers possess these traits.”

Belnap also noted that portions of the hiring interviews are done over the phone to hear how candidates respond, as well as ask for email responses to certain questions.

Teachers who are then hired are also given “a lot of professional development,” she said.

(Next page: Practices 4-5 and a bonus)

4. Offering rigorous and engaging curriculum.

Survey respondents explained that engaging curriculum helps keep students moving forward and focused, and a well-designed curriculum provides different methods of delivering content to accommodate different learning styles.

“Public schools don’t have the time and resources to research and develop the type of ‘best practices’ curriculum schools would like to offer,” explained Keith Wilson, principal of Lawrence Virtual Schools, Kan. “But the private sector can.”

5. Providing students with enough training/clear expectations around their responsibilities to take courses.

All respondents acknowledged that the “upfront investment in training students how to use the technology and clearly defining what is expected of them could mean the difference between successful and unsuccessful course completion.”

Bonus: How to measure success.

When asked how they measure the success of an online program, respondents ranked a number of attributes as important. However, the top ranked measure of quality  is for a “student to demonstrate growth in academic performance throughout the year,” says the survey.

For example, ACPS use the usual metrics to measure how well their program is doing, including interim test results, end-of-course tests, graduation rates, and learning time.

Yet, “the real success story is in the stories,” said Fluharty. “It is hard when online learning programs are held to the same standards as the brick-and-mortar schools. There are no metrics that capture the essence of success for dropout prevention or diploma recovery better than the real stories.”

According to Tres Tyvland, student services coordinator at Bend-La Pine Schools Online in Bend, Ore., the best way to measure quality is through student growth in the course.

“[Traditional standardized tests] simply confirm, year after year, that the student remains behind grade level. When you consider that most students have been in the online program for fewer than two years, these types of tests are more reflective of their previous education experience than their online educational experience.”

She continued, “A better way to measure the success of an online program would be to look at the progress a student makes over the course of a school year.”

To request a copy of the full survey, click here.