23 February 2013

Why Students Are Failing Online Courses and What We Can Do About It

A recent study of students in online courses by the Columbia University's Community College Research Center (featured in TechCrunch) found evidence that "all students who take more online courses, no matter the demographic, are less likely to attain a degree," but that particularly, male, African-American, and younger students struggle. I'd just had a conversation with an English teacher, @amathews17, about online courses at METC last week, so the study particularly piqued my interest.

The Problem
Class averages with "normal" sample sizes are lower than traditional courses
Our district currently offers a ton of recovery credits to juniors and seniors during the school day and after school two days a week. The success of the program is debatable in my opinion. The math scores, which shown above, are low, but the history and lit courses, (which I thought were always better) aren't drastically better. A lot of kids get credits, but...

Here's the problem (from my experience as an online student AND teacher) with online courses that disadvantage males, minorities, and youth.
  1. Online courses require more intrinsic motivation to begin and sustain work, and self-assessment of progress toward learning goals. Without social pressures or direct teacher pacing, many students cannot monitor their pacing and fall behind, or struggle to even begin coursework.
  2. Online courses, even those facilitated by instructors featuring both synchronous and asynchronous interactivity in the form of chats or discussion forums, are an independent venture. Students are expected to work alone, and to seek out assistance when necessary. We work hard to socialize our students and foster collaboration (and rightfully so), but we've lost the value of independent, quiet thought in the process.
  3. Online courses require students to read for learning and often to write for assessment. This is a particular challenge in OUR program because a lot of our students wind up needing to recover credits because they reading below grade level. They get by in traditional courses where teachers can modify texts and give verbal cues, but once those supports are gone, these struggling readers don't even know where to begin.

What Can We Do?
If online courses are the future of ed, (which all recent trends suggest) there are elements of online courses we can integrate into traditional classrooms to develop a blended-learning environment that can prepare our students for future online courses.
  1. Make students read. You have to. Use more than just your text book
    1. Check your bookroom for old texts
    2. Create/adapt your own texts with a CK12.org Flexbook
    3. Make use of free materials on other publishers' websites and MOOC offerings on iTunesU 
  2. Hold your students responsible for monitoring and reflecting on their progress, and have tools available for self-assessment and directed intervention
    1. Video repository (Your own or any from YouTube/tutorial sites)
    2. Extra practice links that are self-grading or worksheets with solutions available
    3. Guided chapter or lesson summaries with some blanks missing
  3. Before (or after) your social, constructivist activity, introduce an independent activity of pre (or post) cognition. It will enhance later discussion and acclimate students to forming their own questions and ideas
    1. Pre-reading
    2. KWL charts
    3. Frayer models for key concepts
    4. "I learned, I liked, I wish..."
The Takeaway
It gets reiterated every year and every time standards are reorganized, but every teacher really must be a reading teacher. Whether its for future Smarter Balanced CCSS assessments, strategies for online courses, or improvement in your own subject, there's no way to get around the necessity that our students are able to read in our content area.