June 14, 2018

How Can We Improve Online Education?

A collaborative effort in Michigan is investigating the effectiveness of one strategy.

Online learning has become an important part of Michigan’s K–12 education system. Last year, 101,359 students—or 7 percent of all students in the state—took at least one virtual course. In all, Michigan students took more than 500,000 courses online.

But completion rates for these courses left something to be desired. Statewide, the pass rate for virtual courses was only 55 percent, while a full quarter of students did not pass any of the online courses in which they enrolled.

So in an effort to boost passing rates, Michigan Virtual—one of the state’s largest providers of virtual courses—will begin testing a new online orientation course this fall with public high school students. The two-hour course will show students how to navigate the online environment, complete assignments, ask for help, and participate in class discussions.

EDC researchers Jackie Zweig, Erin Stafford, and Makoto Hanita are conducting a study to examine whether the orientation course improves students’ completion rates in their subject-matter courses. They think this study could help inform online learning practices across the United States.

“Online learning is widespread, it’s moving quickly, and there’s little research about it,” says Zweig. “We need to identify effective strategies to support students in these courses.”

To track whether students who have taken the orientation course earn a passing grade in their online courses (measured as 60 percent or more of total course points), the research team will be partnering with Michigan Virtual and the Michigan Department of Education in an arrangement known as a “research-practitioner partnership” (sidebar). Zweig believes this collaboration will benefit educators and students throughout Michigan.

“Michigan Virtual and Michigan Department of Education each have large data systems, and partnering allows us to link data from those two systems,” she says. “By collaborating, we can address some of the challenges to conducting rigorous research on online learning. While we bring research expertise, our partners are experts on what is happening in online courses across the state and how they are being implemented to help students succeed.”

For Michelle Ribant, assistant director, Office of Systems, Evaluation and Technology at the Michigan Department of Education, the partnership is all about student success.

“Ensuring student success is key to everything we do at the Michigan Department of Education,” says Ribant. “So learning whether an introductory training can boost the success rate for online students—especially for first time online students—can help us figure out how to best prepare students for the online learning environment.”

Why do so many Michigan students turn to online classes? Joe Freidhoff, vice president of Michigan Virtual, says that students may take an online course when a certain class is not offered at their school or when a scheduling conflict prevents the student from taking the face-to-face offering. The most frequently chosen courses are those that fulfill graduation requirements.

“Statewide the biggest factor is credit recovery,” he says. “These are students who tried the course before in a face-to-face setting and didn’t pass but still need the course to graduate.”

But, Freidhoff adds, online courses can be difficult for many students because the online experience is much different from their face-to-face classroom experiences. Teacher-student interactions are different. Students also have to become comfortable with the online interface that is being used to deliver their classes.

“Orientation courses are generally thought to be a good idea, but we couldn’t identify any research that said this was a proven practice,” he says. “This study will help us understand just how effective this treatment is.”