You may have noticed over the weekend in the regular installment of the Virtual Schooling in the News feature, it was announced that “researchers from University of Michigan, Stanford and University of California, Davis have received a $1.6 million grant to conduct a three-year study of virtual schooling.”
The two items included over the weekend (i.e., one a blog entry and the other the UC Davis notice), along with two others I was able to find quickly (i.e., the notices from Michigan and Stanford) included:
- Researchers Receive Grant for Study of Virtual Schools
- UC Davis gets federal grant to fund research on online learning
- Stanford researchers receive grant for study of K12 online learning
- U-M researchers share grant to study online learning
Like any researcher in the field, I welcome this news and this kind of funding. However, there are some issues that I want to raise to question the usefulness of this line of inquiry.
“The study will explore how virtual schooling options affect students’ course progression, academic achievement and teacher effectiveness.”
“Researchers will examine data for virtual and face-to-face schools in Florida from 2003 through 2014. In addition, they’ll collect additional data through surveys from students and teachers in the Florida Virtual School and from students and teachers at Miami Dade County Public Schools.”
“‘We will also ask the students about the support they receive from teachers, such as feedback and encouragement,’ Hart said. ‘And we will ask teachers about the support they receive from administrators, such as curricular materials and real-time coaching.'”
“’As online learning options multiply, little is known about how well such courses serve K12 students,’ said Susanna Loeb (link is external), the Barnett Family Professor of Education at Stanford and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis (link is external), said. ‘Our project will explore how access to online courses affects students’ test scores, course grades and progression.’”
I guess the first thing to take issue with is the comment, “As online learning options multiply, little is known about how well such courses serve K12 students” – as anyone who is familiar with the field knows that we do know a fair amount about how students do in supplemental and full-time online learning environments and what kinds of students have success without the appropriate supports.
Beyond this fallacy there are a couple of things that are problematic about this line of inquiry… As I read it above, there are up to five research questions (maybe more):
- How access to online courses affects students’ test scores?
- How access to online courses affects students’ course grades?
- How access to online courses affects students’ progression?
- What factors affect teacher effectives in online courses?
- What support do online students receive from teachers?
Those in the field of K-12 online learning may see the first problem… The first three questions are absolutely useless to the field. There is no way that the researchers could control for all of the student variables to be able to determine whether it was the online learning that cause any changes they might find. Even if they were able to control all of those factors (and that is a HUGE “if”), there is no way to control for the fact that teaching in a face-to-face manner is simply different than teaching in an online fashion! As such, the researchers will never be able to determine if it was the fact that the students were online or the changes that naturally occur in the instructional design or the pedagogical delivery of the content that had the real impact on students’ test scores, course grades, and progression. So the bottom line is that on the first three questions the answer basically is that it will depend on the individual circumstances and, regardless of the findings, it doesn’t matter! The medium of delivery has no impact on student performance!!!
Now the fourth question is an interesting one, as it begs the question… what is effective? How do we determine an effective online teacher from an ineffective online teacher? Is it based on course completion? Test scores? Online classroom observation? The virtual school’s say so? Plus what teacher are we talking about here… Is it the online teacher that delivers the course? Or maybe the influence of the teacher(s) or other professional(s) that designed the online course content? Or maybe it is based on the influence of the local school-based teacher that helps facilitate the student while they are learning online? See the problem…
Really it is only the final question that has any real face validity to it! And this is the biggest problem that we have within the field of K-12 online learning right now. We don’t have a lot of scholars that are researching K-12 online learning and there are very few projects that receive any substantial funding. And when we finally see some funding being put into researching the field, much of the actual research is focused on problematic and/or useless information that will do little to nothing to move the field forward.