Innovations in Education: Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online
December 2007
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Colorado Online Learning

Lakewook, Colo.

School Profile: Selected Variables a

Year Initiated 1998
Initiator Consortium of 14 districts
Types of Courses Offered APb
Number of Courses Currently Offered 80
Total Enrollments Since Inception 6,832

a These data are reported by the school and are for the school year 2006–07.
b Advanced Placement

Colorado Online Learning (COL) began in 1998 as the 14-district Colorado Online School Consortium, supported by a three-year federal Technology Literacy Challenge Fund grant administered through the Colorado Department of Education (CDE).* In 2002, the consortium became a nonprofit company, took its new name, and received additional federal funding. From an initial enrollment of 60 students, COL enrollment grew to a high of 800-plus students per semester in 2004–05 before dropping to 600–700 students per semester in 2005–06, when student tuition rose at the end of grant funding. COL students represent more than 80 (45 percent) of the state's 178 school districts. Approximately three-quarters of the students live in rural Colorado, with the remainder residing in urban and suburban communities, primarily in the Denver area. According to student surveys, students' primary motivation for participating is to gain access to courses not available at their home schools.

Because COL's predecessor organization was initiated at a time when both the U.S. and Colorado departments of education were calling for higher achievement in math and science, its staff first developed and piloted several core mathematics and science classes. But starting in 1999, they began recruiting licensed teachers from partner school districts to develop online courses. In 2002, when COL received a second round of federal funding, it created a quality assurance program to oversee the development of new courses and to review current offerings. That second grant required COL to hire an external evaluator to appraise it on a quarterly and annual basis throughout the three-year grant period.

COL's board of directors oversees course development and hiring of instructors, but members have no contact with partner schools or districts. COL staff oversee day-to-day implementation, including enrollment, for example. In addition to its executive director, COL has four other staff members: a director of instruction, who manages issues related to course development and instruction; a student services director, who oversees school membership and student enrollment; a technology services director, handling all technology-related issues; and a director of mathematics instruction. This last position was created because COL has so many mathematics courses that it needs a full-time individual to manage the mathematics curriculum and support teachers.

Student Recruitment and Enrollment

COL staff recruit districts, schools, and students by attending education conferences and talk- ing to school leaders. The student services director notes that COL's origins as a districtbased, rather than a state-based, organization may have impeded quicker growth because COL is not centrally funded or otherwise supported by the CDE. Nevertheless, to maintain open communication between the two organizations, COL consistently invites CDE staff to attend its board meetings.

The most common reasons for students to enroll in COL courses include: to take a course not offered by their school, to take a course that is otherwise unavailable to them because of a scheduling conflict, and to progress toward high school graduation while home for medical or disciplinary reasons. Each partner school's or district's site coordinator—the school or district staff member assigned overall responsibility for program implementation at the site**—is responsible for discussing COL options with students and parents, enrolling students, and monitoring student progress. To help both the site coordinator and a student understand the student's possible strengths and challenges in undertaking online learning, COL provides a student survey that the coordinator can administer as a means of initiating a discussion about learning styles and environments. Some of COL's partner schools require participating students and their parents to sign a contract attesting to their knowledge of how online learning works and of obligations for course completion.

Course Offerings

A COL survey of Colorado school districts in 2000 yielded varied suggestions for courses. COL chose to create rigorous courses for advanced students, a decision that enhances postsecondary options for students in rural and high- poverty school districts. In addition to advanced and supplementary enrichment classes, it now also provides remedial classes. COL created several mathematics review classes because high school teachers lamented that too many students had not mastered basic arithmetic and algebra skills by the time they enrolled in higher-level mathematics courses. The nonprofit provider owns 95 percent of the 80-plus classes it offers to students. COL also enables students to earn college credit by taking dual-enrollment classes that are co-offered by COL and its higher education partners (i.e., University of Colorado at Denver, Jones International University, and Adams State College) and for which students can earn both high school and university or college credit. For an additional $150 per class (beyond the standard $200 per-course enrollment fee), students can elect the dual-enrollment option, by which they complete additional assignments designated by a partnering institution of higher education and earn both high school credit and college or university credit at the same time.

Under COL's Quality Assurance Program, certified Colorado teachers can propose a course by completing the Pre-Development Course Outline, using a template available online, and submitting it to COL's director of instruction, who selects courses for development. Whether reviewing proposals for new courses or the provider's current offerings, the director of instruction evaluates such elements as instructional design, pedagogical style, software requirements, and opportunities for student collaboration. At the same time, external subject matter experts examine course content. Once a course proposal is approved, the teacher develops the course according to guidelines created by COL. Teachers log their time spent on course development and revision, submit it to the director of instruction for approval, and receive $30 an hour for the work. The director of instruction evaluates courses and instructors, submitting written evaluations to the COL executive director (who is a licensed principal), who summarizes the evaluations for COL's board of directors.

Instruction, Mentoring, and Support

Currently, COL employs 35 part-time teachers, and any Colorado-certified teacher may apply to teach an online course. Similar to the survey offered to interested students is COL's survey for prospective teachers, which evaluates their readiness to teach an online course. In their application, teachers must designate which course they want to teach, assess their technical skills, and write a short essay explaining their interest in online teaching. COL pays an instructor $165 for every student who passes the instructor's course, with the funding coming from course tuition and, when available, grants.

Although COL aims to become a fully digital provider, some classes still use traditional textbooks. COL instructors submit their book and material requirements to the student services director, who buys and distributes textbooks to schools; to students, who return the books to COL after completing the course; or to both. Schools and students are responsible for auxiliary materials, such as calculators and art supplies.

After students' initial enrollment, schools have 25 days in which to withdraw students without a fee; COL then invoices the districts for all remaining students. Teachers monitor student participation and generally are required to give a status report to the school site coordinator at 10 and 25 days; they are asked to report more frequently for inactive students. The site coordinator tracks student progress through this direct instructor feedback and by checking the student's online "grade book," which includes assignments, the time spent working on the task, and any grades. A parent seeking information about his or her child's work can speak with the site coordinator or enter the student's portal using the student's name and a password provided by COL. Final grades are reported by COL in percentages, which the school then translates to a letter grade based on its own grading scale. (In some schools, for example, an 89 percent might be considered an A, while at others, it might be considered a B.)

COL's courses are hosted by the eCollege platform (i.e., a Web-based framework for running software, such as Microsoft Word). COL pays eCollege a hosting fee to maintain the Web site for its courses, and COL's technology services director works closely with eCollege to ensure that the Web site functions well for all participants. Students and teachers experiencing technical difficulties address their questions to the eCollege help desk rather than to COL. Schools whose students enroll in COL courses are obligated to provide appropriate Web access, which, in some cases, requires schools to reset their network firewalls.47


During its first six years, COL was funded in part by two consecutive three-year federal grants: the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund (TLCF) grant in 1998 and an Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) grant in 2002. (The EETT program created under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 consolidated the TLCF and Technology Innovation Challenge Grant programs into a single state-formula*** grant program to support the integration of educational technology into classrooms to improve teaching and learning.) During the six years of this grant funding, COL schools paid $200 per course enrollment unless they had a high proportion of students whose families lived below the poverty line, in which case the school paid only $100 per enrollment. When the second grant ended in 2005, COL raised the price of enrollment to $300 per student regardless of school demographics. Because more than half of the schools participating in COL are high-poverty, high-need schools, enrollments dropped after the price increase.

Earlier state legislation (House Bill 06-1008) allowed districts with fewer than 3,000 students, as well as eligible charter schools, to be reimbursed on a formula basis for the cost of courses successfully completed by their students. The formula was based on district enrollment for grades 6–12. However, that bill called for reimbursement funding only for the 2006–07 school year. During the summer of 2007, COL sought and secured $500,000 from the state for the 2007–08 school year. Instead of being used to reimburse eligible school districts on a perstudent completion basis, the funds will be used to reduce the price of enrollment from $300 to $200 per course.

* See page 55 for more on funding.
** See figure 1 for a list of COL site coordinator responsibilities.
*** Formula grants are allocations of federal money to states or their subdivisions in accordance with a distribution formula prescribed by law or administrative regulation for activities of a continuing nature not confined to a specific project.

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Last Modified: 10/05/2009