Online Learning Day: 8 Trends Improving Student Options

Learner Experience, Learning, Learning Design, Online & Blended

We’re celebrating Online Learning Day today. It’s been two decades since the first online schools and degree programs emerged. Almost a third of HigherEd students now take at least one course online. Most HigherEd students engage in blended learning, a mixture of online and face-to-face learning.

Informal and professional learning online, often in chunks shorter than courses, is nearly ubiquitous with online learning marketplaces like Udemy and Coursera and tons of open resources like Khan Academy and CK-12.

Online learning has grown more slowly in K-12 but most school districts now offer online classes (directly or through a partner). Statewide schools, operated by districts and charter schools play an important role in providing equitable access to a variety of quality learning pathways. (See the chart developed by EducationNext.)

Online learning—both full and part-time—serves many different kinds of students in many different circumstances. As discussed in July, some learners are way ahead and seeking challenges not found at their local school. Some are way behind and have not been well served by their neighborhood school. Some move with their families on a regular basis. Some were bullied at school. Some are homebound. Some have experienced difficult family circumstances. Some want to explore an interest in an elective course or build fluency in a world language not offered at their school. And some are athletes who need the flexibility to train (like speed skater Apolo Ohno, who graduated from the online school launched by the district where I was superintendent in the 90s).

8 Reasons Online Learning is Getting Better

We see eight trends improving online learning options (an update to an October post)

Broader aims. Like place-based education, online learning is beginning to embrace a broader set of outcomes including success skills and global citizenship.

More project-based learning. Like traditional schools, we’re seeing more focus on student engagement, particularly project-based learning.

More personalized learning: Providers are using data to personalize learning experiences and sequences for each student.

  • In many K-12 schools, teachers are talking about data on student academic performance—not just talking, but analyzing the data and, based on their insights, changing the way they teach. It’s all part of an effort to improve student academic achievement by implementing the principles of Data Driven Instruction.
  • Connections Education Math Teachlets in Algebra and Geometry are instructional modules that supplement the asynchronous model and help students understand challenging topics by presenting them in fresh and engaging ways (winner of the 2012 Tech & Learning Awards of Excellence). LiveLessons provide synchronous support which helps to further personalize the instruction based on individual student’s needs. Some learning sequences will incorporate game-based and adaptive learning strategies.

More interactive: “Engagement is even more important than in a traditional model — lack of engagement is directly related to lack of achievement,” according to a Digital Learning Now report.

  • Research affirms the importance of engaged and approachable instructors in online education.
  • Connections Education State Signature Courses: Interactive state-specific history courses for grades 2-4 in Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Utah; they feature an inquiry-based approach, virtual timelines, Google Earth tours, and interactive presentations (winner of the 2012 Tech & Learning Awards of Excellence).
  • K12 is getting mobile friendly with the launch of an updated course catalog with over 90 tablet ready courses that will allow even more students to learn anytime, anywhere.
  • Corporate trainers suggest micro-interactions (of less than five minutes), challenges, game-based strategies, and frequent feedback. Some courses will incorporate augmented and virtual reality.

More support: Quality programs offer strong online and on-site support.

  • Connections Education has improved its onboarding particularly for late enrollers (who, not surprisingly, complete and achieve at lower levels on average). Students are connected to a Learning Coach for training sessions and support services.
  • Georgia Cyber Academy improved onboarding and wrap-around services and demonstrated significantly greater gains than similar students who did not receive these services.
  • Hoosier Virtual’s administrators spend more time observing teachers and working with them in data meetings to focus on improving student outcomes. Administrators are also working to provide teachers with streamlined data reporting and data driven instruction-related professional development. Academic Administrator Patricia Herron says that “Hoosier has become a very positive environment. Teachers are ‘owning’ student data and their decisions.”
  • K12 combine data science and increased school support staff and piloted a differentiated start of school on-boarding program at 17 schools last year.
  • Connections and K-12 have added college and career planning services.

Stronger relationships: In Smart Cities, we noted that “Learning, especially for children, is and will remain a distinctly relationship-based enterprise.” Quality online learning providers recognize that teacher and advisor relationships are key.

  • The success of Wisconsin Virtual Academy is based on powerful relationships. Head of School Dr. Leslye Moraski Erickson values strong collaboration and teamwork, and she actively recruits and hires teachers she describes as “collaborative in spirit.”
  • Relationship tools, like Fidelis, are helping providers monitor academic progress, scheduling, career and college guidance, and challenges that require links to youth/family services (see white paper).

More competency-based: Most high school and college learning will continue to be organized as courses with end of course exams or demonstrations. WGU, the largest provider of math and science teachers, features a rich course of study including ebundles, home-delivered labs, digital simulations. The program relies heavily on end of course exams as competency-based gateways.

  • TEACH-NOW from the Educatore School of Education is an example of innovative, learn by doing, online teacher prep and certification program that provides an interactive collaborative and efficient certification option for next-gen educators. Learning modules are mapped to specific competencies.
  • College for America (discussed in above) replaces courses with a sequence of projects that support individual progress. Match Beyond sponsors and supports low wage working adults as they earn project-based degrees online, Big Picture high schools in Providence use the CfA projects for dual enrollment.

More part-time: Full-time enrollment in virtual schools will continue to grow slowly but part-time online learning that supplements a blended core will continue to grow rapidly. Course Access describes state policies that allow K-12 students to access a variety of quality courses outside the school where they remain enrolled. This policy strengthens the traditional classroom and school, and allows students to an expanded and targeted course catalog.

  • Through a partnership with Florida Virtual School and Fuel Education, Miami Dade County School District created Blended Learning Communities (BLC), computer labs where students can take at least one online course.
  • Credit recovery: Fulfilling a credit for a dropped or failed course–is a common application of part-time online learning

Closing Advice

Not yet a trend, states could improve the quality of online learning by providing portable and performance-based funding, developing better growth measures of individual student progress; and improving provisioning and authorizing practices.

Even with improvement, better measures and better policies, big online schools will probably have performance levels similar to those of big districts serving high-need, high-mobility populations. Key will be the ability to disaggregate performance data by the type of students served and by their time enrolled.

And even with current policy and measurement limitations, recent studies critical of online schools suggests that thousands of students in virtual charter schools were doing as well or better than their peers. For struggling and harassed students, online schools may be their last resort. For both accelerated and struggling students, it’s worth building on success, improving our ability to track the progress of individual students and providing better information to families about educational options.

Paul LeBlanc (@snhuprez), President of Southern New Hampshire University offers some good advice–applicable to secondary as postsecondary learners: “The challenge is to be an informed consumer, to ask the right questions.” LeBlanc suggests asking a few questions:

  • Graduation rates and how students are doing afterwards–do they have high levels of debt, especially in relation to earnings?
  • Who does the advising and how? Many schools now outsource significant portions of their online programs.
  • What types of supports are offered (e.g.,tutoring, wellness)?

For more see:


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

No Comments Yet

You can be the first to comment!