Administrators LEAD & MANAGE MY SCHOOL
Innovations in Education: Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online
December 2007
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Ensuring Quality of Advanced Courses

A district or school that has mapped its current curriculum against students' needs and interests is ready to investigate online providers to find out what advanced courses are available and the quality of each provider's course design and review process. For its part, the online provider must be attuned to the market, understanding what courses are likely to be needed by districts and schools and then creating or brokering engaging, high-quality courses to meet those needs.

Looking for Appropriate Design and Review

Quality instructional design is critical for any course, whether offline or online. In considering online providers, districts and schools must feel confident that quality courses are provided. They will want to be sure that courses align to relevant academic standards and are updated as needed to ensure currency of pedagogy and content. This latter is especially important when talking about certain kinds of advanced courses (e.g., astronomy) for which aspects of the content must be changed as new research or discoveries are made (e.g., Pluto's removal from the list of planets). Districts and schools also will want to consider the degree to which online courses can be characterized as "lowtech, high-touch," meaning they are delivered over the Web, using accessible, easy-to-manage information technology tools, while at the same time offering plenty of opportunities for student-instructor and student-to-student interaction.

Each program highlighted here has a documented process for creating or selecting highquality courses and ensuring their alignment to state and national standards. When creating a course, they engage content experts, specialists in online pedagogy, editors, and other educators (e.g., school and district administrators). They also tend to adhere to course-development guidelines, either their own, those issued by the National Education Association (NEA) in 2002, 27 or a combination of both. Another set of guidelines became available in late 2006, when the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) issued Standards for Quality Online Courses, 28 which addresses content and technology issues, as well as instructional design, student assessment, and course evaluation and management (see Standards for Quality Online Courses From the Southern Regional Education Board on p. 21). Even though the standards were developed for SREB member states, they are universally applicable and can serve as a useful reference point as a school or district searches for a good course provider.

Standards for Quality Online Courses From the Southern Regional Education Board

In late 2006, the Educational Technology Cooperative of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) issued Standards for Quality Online Courses. Developed collaboratively by a team that included representatives from both K–12 and postsecondary education, national and regional organizations, and state departments of education in SREB's 16 member states, the standards cover five broad areas—course content, instructional design, student assessment, technology, and course evaluation and management. Within each of these areas, there are also indicators for key subtopics.

  • Standard for course content: The course provides online learners with engaging learning experiences that promote their mastery of content and are aligned with state content standards or nationally accepted content.

    Indicators address academic content standards and assessments; course overview and introduction; legal and acceptable use policies; and teacher resources.

  • Standard for instructional design: The course uses learning activities that engage students in active learning; provides students with multiple learning paths to master the content based on student needs; reflects multicultural education and is accurate, current, and free of bias; and provides ample opportunities for interaction and communication student to student, student to instructor, and instructor to student.

    Indicators address instructional and audience analysis; course, unit, and lesson design; communication and interaction; and resources and materials.

  • Standard for student assessment: The course uses multiple strategies and activities to assess student readiness for and progress in course content and provides students with feedback on their progress.

    Indicators address evaluation strategies; frequency and quality of feedback to students; and assessment resources and materials.

  • Standard for technology: The course takes full advantage of a variety of technology tools, has a user-friendly interface, and meets accessibility standards for interoperability and access for learners with special needs.

    Indicators address course architecture; user interface; technology requirements and interoperability; accessibility; and technical support.

  • Standard for course evaluation and management: The course is evaluated regularly for effectiveness, using a variety of assessment strategies, and the findings are used as a basis for improvement. The course is kept up to date, both in content and in the application of new research on course design and technologies.

  • Indicators address assessing course effectiveness; course updates; accreditation; and data security.

Some providers rely solely on certified, classroom- based teachers to develop their courses, an approach sometimes referred to as a distributed course-development system. VHS has put together course-design standards based on a combination of the NEA guidelines and those of its own well-established professional development program, which certifies teachers for online instruction. Once a teacher has developed a new course, which also must be based on national curriculum standards (e.g., the National Science Teachers Association's science standards, the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics' mathematics standards), the course is reviewed by VHS's curriculum coordinators and then aligned to the state standards associated with the member school.

COL relies largely, although not exclusively, on classroom teachers to develop its courses. Ninety-five percent of its courses have been developed by certified Colorado teachers through COL's Quality Assurance Program (QAP), with the other 5 percent coming from a third-party provider (i.e., a course provider other than the one directly partnering with a school or district, in this case, COL). Under QAP, a Colorado-certified teacher who wants to develop a course submits a course outline that includes suggested grade level for the course, course prerequisites, necessary skills and aptitude for student success in the course, a course overview, learning objectives, specific Colorado standards that the course will address, learning activities, and the estimated cost of materials. Once an outline is approved, the instructor develops the course following COL's guidelines, which, like VHS's, are influenced by the NEA guidelines.

The first draft of the course is reviewed by COL's director of online instruction, a specialist in online pedagogy who leads the QAP and also oversees regular review of existing courses to ensure they remain current. When reviewing a proposed course, this specialist checks to make sure the instructor addresses multiple learning styles; incorporates active-learning components; uses appropriate instructional design, tools, and software; and builds in opportunities for students to collaborate—all aspects of development that are especially important for advanced course work. COL also contracts with external content experts to review courses, both those in development and existing courses that may need updating. COL's board of directors makes final decisions about which courses go in the catalog, based on how courses score on the following criteria:

  • Courses are aligned to state standards, and learning objectives are easy to find and understand;

  • Visual appeal is created through the use of graphics and animation;

  • Appropriate rigor and richness of content are integrated throughout the course;

  • The technology works well, and there is evidence of appropriate use of software; and

  • Supplemental materials (e.g., links to relevant Web sites, current journal articles) enhance the course.

While COL and VHS each use a type of the distributed course-development system described earlier, FLVS and CtY maintain course developers on staff. FLVS uses a blended approach: Its courses are developed primarily by an in-house team of curriculum and instruction experts, who collaborate with Florida educators if additional content expertise is needed during the coursedevelopment process.

Three of the highlighted providers—COL, MVS, IOAPA—license AP courses from third-party providers who, in order to designate a course as "AP," must first submit it to the College Board for approval through its course audit system. 29 In licensing AP courses from others, these providers look for a course-development process similar to their own. They then create review teams to examine the courses for quality and alignment to relevant standards. For example, IOAPA licenses online courses from third-party provider Apex Learning, which has in-house staff dedicated to developing quality courses aligned to national and state standards. Like a number of third-party providers, Apex promises continual updating of its AP courses to keep them in line with any content or standards changes made by the College Board, and as of mid-2007, all of IOAPA's Apex courses were approved through the College Board audit process. In addition, it offers technical support and instructors who are Iowa-certified teachers.

MVS licenses AP course content from several third-party providers, including Apex, the Monterey Institute of Technology and Education (MITE), and one of the providers highlighted in this guide, FLVS. The licensing process requires these vendors to demonstrate that their courses align to Michigan standards. In an effort to build the capacity of Michigan teachers to teach rigorous courses and rely less on thirdparty providers, MVS has undertaken an aggressive two-year initiative to provide highly qualified, Michigan-certified instructors for all of its AP course offerings.

Online providers must review all courses regularly to keep them current with state content standards and, in the case of AP courses, with any revisions required by the College Board. (Although IB's online courses are only in the piloting stage now, the same type of updating will eventually be required for its courses.) FLVS, for example, revises one-third of its courses every year so that all courses are updated at least once every three years. One FLVS instructor noted that a key aspect of course revision is keeping examples and graphics up to date, because students can be distracted by dated material, such as a reference misidentifying a past U.S. president as the current president.

In considering available advanced courses, district and school decision-makers should look for iterative and well-documented course review processes. They also should look for alignment of courses to their local and state standards and for engaging delivery technology.

Considering Teacher-Student Interaction and Course Pacing

Because different students have different learning needs, schools will want to pay attention to two important variables in the design of any virtual course: the degree and type of interaction between and among students and instructor and the degree of flexibility in course pacing. Although both variables should be considered irrespective of the type of course being offered (e.g., core, advanced), for a district or school attempting to broaden the range of students taking advanced courses, these factors are especially significant. Students who are new to college preparatory courses or who work more successfully within a structured environment may profit from having more interaction with their instructors and having less flexibility about when they must complete assignments.

Teacher-student interaction. Online courses incorporate varying degrees of asynchronous and synchronous interaction between students and instructor and among students. Asynchronous interaction occurs when there is no real-time communication between students and instructor or among students; the instructor typically posts assignments, lectures, support materials, and instructions online, and students can log in at any time to do their work. When students have questions they can e-mail their instructor or post a message to the instructor (or fellow students) on a virtual (i.e., online) class discussion board; the instructor and other students respond in the same manner. Most of the programs featured in this guide require their instructors to respond to students within a specific time (e.g., within 24 hours).

Asynchronous does not mean that students do not interact with the instructor. They just do not do so in real time, which gives them more flexibility in terms of fitting a course into their schedule. When a course is completely asynchronous, as are many AP courses, students might interact with instructors exclusively via e-mail or discussion board postings. But such a course can be highly structured, with many due dates and a lot of feedback from the instructor. For advanced students who are very motivated and organized, especially those who are trying to fit an additional course into an already busy schedule, working in this fashion can be appealing in that it allows them to work at their own pace and on their own schedule within certain parameters (e.g., all work must be completed within a prescribed period). But such semi-independent study is by no means the right choice for all students, including, for example, those who are new to the rigor of college prep courses and may not yet have a lot of self-confidence, whose learning style is such that real-time interaction with the instructor is important, or who are simply less organized or motivated. For these students, a greater degree of synchronous communication may be desirable.

Synchronous interaction occurs when participants (e.g., students with an instructor, students with each other) are online at the same time or otherwise connected (e.g., by computer and phone) with the intention of communicating in real time. Synchronous interactions can be built into courses through chat rooms and other forms of instant messaging and by scheduling "open classroom" time, during which the instructor is online explaining or modeling something and students can ask questions or discuss what is being taught. Instructors can also establish "office hours," during which they are available to converse online or even by phone with individual students.

Students in CTY's mathematics and science courses can move through online lessons or text chapters at their own pace, communicating with instructors asynchronously via e-mail or synchronously over the telephone (see Course Materials for Online Learning). But, like advanced calculus student Lisa in the vignette entitled Getting Connected in an Online Course, if a student has questions and wants to communicate in real time with the instructor, or vice versa, either one can e-mail the other to schedule an online meeting. For the meeting, they communicate synchronously using an interactive whiteboard application that essentially serves as a form of graphical instant messaging. If the teacher decides that enough students are asking the same questions or have the same difficulty understanding certain concepts, the teacher can schedule an informal online meeting, very much like a college professor initiating an informal review session that students can decide whether or not to attend. This whiteboard application is particularly helpful for communicating about math and science because it allows users to draw, which can be useful when discussing equations and graphs or sharing schematics and diagrams. It also allows users to download and share calculator screen shots. For a look at a screen shot from an interactive whiteboard, see figure 2.

Getting Connected in an Online Course

Lisa is a freshman at an inner-city high school in the Southwest. She has scored exceptionally high on her state achievement test and consistently ranks in the top 5 percent of her class. Unfortunately, her current school does not have the resources to offer a gifted-and-talented program or advanced courses on-site. Throughout Lisa's education, guidance counselors have suggested allowing her to skip grade levels in order for her to be more challenged academically, but Lisa's parents have preferred that she stay in class with her peers, students with whom she has grown up and to whom she feels close due to shared interests and activities.

Eager to give Lisa an opportunity to work at her highest potential, her high school guidance counselor began researching alternative programs for students considered to be gifted. The counselor discovered an online provider that specializes in offering supplemental advanced courses. Its courses are based on achievement standards specifically geared toward accelerating learning and also are aligned to both state and national standards. After discussions between the high school principal and the district's director of instructional technology, a decision was made to count online course credits toward the district's graduation requirements.

Excited about the new opportunity, Lisa decided to enroll in an advanced calculus course. She would continue to report to her current math teacher at the beginning of class and then go to the school's computer lab. As with some of her regular classes, Lisa had nine months in which to complete the course, but she also could choose to move through the course more quickly. During the first week of the course, Lisa's online instructor called her on the phone to introduce himself, and he also spoke with her parents. He said it was important for Lisa to remember that there was a human instructor on the other end of her online learning experience. He directed her to the main Web page for the course that listed his office hours, phone number, and e-mail address.

In addition to being able to access an electronic calculus textbook through the course's learning management system, Lisa received the textbook on CD-ROM as a back-up. If she needed extra assistance in order to understand a concept or math problem, Lisa would set up a "live" meeting with her instructor, using the electronic whiteboard for a form of instant messaging. The whiteboard gave both the instructor and student an ability to work out problems as if they were in a bricks-and-mortar setting. Lisa found this feature extremely useful. Through an instant messaging chat room that had been set up for the course, she also had a chance to communicate with online classmates. She enjoyed meeting students from other states and even another country.

Lisa completed the course in five months, and has since decided to enroll in the provider's creative writing course.

Online providers are increasingly infusing courses with a combination of asynchronous and synchronous interaction, with students doing much of the work on their own time, but also being required to interact with their classmates and the instructor. Providers take various approaches to ensuring student-to-teacher and student-to-student connections, irrespective of whether those connections actually happen synchronously through a chat room, for example, or asynchronously through means, such as an online discussion board. One way of encouraging such connections is to organize course content into modules (i.e., discrete units of closely related content) with scheduled interaction (e.g., whole-group discussion, instructor-student conversation) at the end of each one. For example, FLVS's instructors (who serve approximately 100 students per semester with each student working at his or her own pace) schedule a telephone or online interaction when a student has completed a course module. In these voice-to-voice or online conversations, the student will offer feedback on the content and assignments and the instructor will respond to any questions the student has. Additionally, FLVS uses Elluminate, a Web conferencing tool that brings students and instructors together in synchronous interaction. Both students and teachers have indicated that they enjoy using the tool for such activities as guest author chats, tutoring, and remote induction ceremonies into FLVS honor societies.

Figure 2. Screen Shot Example of Interactive Whiteboard Used by Johns Hopkins University—Center for Talented Youth for Synchronous a Teacher-Student Interaction
Screen Shot Example of Interactive Whiteboard Used by Johns Hopkins University—Center for Talented Youth for Synchronous a Teacher-Student Interaction

aHere, synchronous interaction means teacher and students are online at the same time.

Note: the text on the right side of the screen and the text next to the checkmarks are from the instructor; the other text is from the student.

Especially when faced with more challenging content, some students will profit from functioning as part of a student cohort, with opportunities to participate in real-time classroom discussions. These discussions are modeled after the same experiences students will encounter throughout their adult lives, as they are required to collaborate or otherwise interact with colleagues in order to brainstorm ideas or find resolutions to various problems. Likewise, participating in these classroom discussions helps students develop valuable interpersonal skills they will need in order to communicate effectively in relationships and in society in general. In classroom discussions students also are exposed to different perspectives and ideas, and they are able to ask and answer questions of their peers as well as their instructor. Some providers build in connections by creating a cohort of students for each course (rather than having instructors serve students on an individual basis) and by limiting the size of that cohort. For example, VHS limits class size to 25 students per instructor so that students have greater opportunity to interact with their instructor and students in their class.

To help students develop connections and a sense of community with peers, who may be relatively far-flung, VHS also has incorporated student- centered discussions and activities into each course. For example, all VHS courses, irrespective of content area, start with the same assignment: By the end of the first week, students must submit a brief written description of themselves. During the second week, each student must review the descriptions of three other students and give feedback to each one. Then, in the third week, each student must review and respond to the feedback he or she has received. In addition to serving as an icebreaker and helping students get to know their online peers, thereby preparing them to participate in online discussions, the assignment helps ready them to provide peer feedback on subsequent assignments. For students who have only recently begun thinking of themselves as college-bound and who might otherwise be hesitant to speak online, this kind of activity can be especially helpful. Some providers actually quantify student interaction requirements, telling students, for example, that each must post a minimum of five online questions during the course and also must respond at least five times to other students' questions.

At both IOAPA and VHS, online instructors facilitate group activities among the students, very much like teachers in a traditional classroom might do. At CTY, in addition to holding online dialogs with their students, writing instructors require students to critique each other's work. Even for its math and science courses, which allow students to progress at their own pace within certain broad parameters, CTY has set up discussion forums to encourage student-tostudent communication.

Course pacing. Many online courses are designed to offer flexible pacing, allowing students to move as quickly or slowly as they wish within some broad parameters. For example, MVS offers a series of completely self-paced classes called "Flex courses." Students can enroll in these courses anytime from early September to mid-October and, once enrolled, they have 90 days to complete the course. Instead of setting due dates for assignments, instructors set guidelines for completing assignments (e.g., half the assignments should be completed within the first 45 days of the course period).

CTY's math and science courses are designed with a similarly flexible pace. Students enroll in three-, six-, or nine-month time increments and at no extra cost they can take as many courses within the time period as they think they can complete. Working at his or her own pace, a student may choose to use the entire enrollment period of three, six, or nine months to complete just one course or may decide to take multiple courses. Students also can take breaks from the course for family vacations or other events, suspending their enrollment time during the break.

On the other hand, providers also offer courses taught within traditional classroom timing parameters. Students are assigned due dates for homework and quizzes, and tests are scheduled regularly. For example, IOAPA's AP courses follow a semester schedule. One semester courses are available in both the fall and spring; all other courses are two semesters in length and start only at the beginning of the fall term.

Some students, especially those who are highly self-motivated and very well organized, may find that a completely asynchronous, self-paced course is exactly what they want (although all students have access to an instructor as needed). At the other end of the spectrum are students who seek out an online course in order to get needed content, but also need or simply like the routine of a regularly scheduled "class" with assigned due dates for class work and assessments. So in considering online providers, if possible, districts and schools may want to look for one that offers multiple options to meet diverse student needs for interaction and course pacing.

Evaluating Online Courses

Even with systematic course development and review practices in place, online courses must be evaluated in the field, with the teachers and students using the courses. Programs often survey teachers, students, and other stakeholders, such as parents and site coordinators, to find out how courses are received. FLVS, for example, includes in its surveys a major section on course rigor and quality. The FLVS surveys are conducted on contract by Optimal Performance, a commercial research organization. Tracking survey responses over time, FLVS finds that results have remained consistent over four years of data. Selected results from the most recent report follow. 30

  • Students reported spending about the same amount of time on their FLVS course as students did in a school-based course.

  • When surveyed about the level of difficulty of their FLVS course compared to a traditional high school course, 27 percent of students responded that their FLVS course was "harder" or "much harder." Thirty-six percent of students indicated their FLVS course was the same level of difficulty as a traditional class, and 21 percent reported that their class was "easier" or "much easier." However, many who found their online course to be easier felt this was because of some of the qualities that are built into FLVS courses, such as the extra one-on-one attention provided by teachers, the ability to resubmit assignments in order to learn content, the lack of disruptions when working from home, the self-pacing structure, or some combination of the above.

  • When asked to compare the quality of their course with their traditional classroom experiences, most students (48 percent) said it was "better" or "much better," and another 30 percent indicated it was of the same quality.

Course Materials for Online Learning

Textbooks. When online courses require textbooks, providers often create links to online stores that can mail the book to the student or school directly. But, increasingly, traditional books are being replaced with e-text and other posted materials. E-text can be enhanced with audio and video streaming and by animation and other visual features. For example, COL's German-language instructor records himself giving a lecture and the video is posted on the course Web site, along with the text. Students then watch and listen to the instructor in the upper left-hand corner of their computer screen even as they click on e-text links to the right. An AP instructor for FLVS values the ability to post Web links and other documents tailored to students' questions as she receives them.

CTY uses third-party provider Thinkwell's electronic textbooks (see fig. 3 on p. 30) for some courses. Like most standard textbooks, each section of Thinkwell's texts also ends with a quiz, and the chapters, themselves, end with a comprehensive assessment. Instructors tailor the courses to match the needs of students by adding resources and assignments, selecting topics, and changing the order of the content in the electronic textbook. In addition to being able to read the textbook online, CTY students receive a CD-ROM version, via ground mail. The CD version ensures that even if they were unable to access the Web site at any time during the course, they could still read the material.

Science labs. For its AP science courses, the College Board has traditionally required that students participate in a hands-on laboratory component supervised by a qualified science educator (e.g., at their school, at a nearby college), as opposed to having students participate in a virtual or computer-simulated lab experience. So at Northwood-Kensett Junior-Senior High School, in Iowa, for example, students complete the lab work for an online AP chemistry course by conducting experiments with a science mentor during the school day. However, at the time the study for this guide was underway, the College Board had opened the door for the possible use of virtual labs for online AP science courses. Under its current policy, schools that choose to develop their online AP science courses with laboratory experiences that are virtual or that include a combination of virtual and hands-on investigations may request authorization to label these courses AP. Their proposed lab experiences will be evaluated by an independent panel of college faculty against the learning objectives of its related course. If the panel determines that the simulated lab develops the same skills as would a hands-on lab and, therefore, meets the course's learning objectives, the course, with its online lab component, may be approved to use the AP designation.

For its own science courses, CTY currently is investigating creating hard-copy lab packets that would be mailed either to a student's home or to school so students can access lab materials easily. The labs would then be completed under the supervision of a parent or science instructor.

FLVS also asks parents about course quality and uses parent responses, along with those of teachers and students, to ensure that they are getting a complete picture.

In its surveys of teachers, VHS also probes about the nature of the learning experience. As a key indicator of course quality, teachers are asked if students "become engaged in their course work." For 2004–05 and 2005–06, roughly 80 percent of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that students became engaged, and also that students participated in collaborative learning. 31

Following the 2005–06 school year, approximately 95 percent of the 110 school principals who responded to VHS's survey said they were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with the quality of VHS course offerings. 32

Figure 3. Interactive "Page" From Thinkwell a Online Trigonometry Textbook Used by Johns Hopkins University—Center for Talented Youth to Provide Dynamic Alternative to Static Hard-copy Texts
Interactive Page From Thinkwell a Online Trigonometry Textbook Used by Johns Hopkins University—Center for Talented Youth to Provide Dynamic Alternative to Static Hard-copy Texts

a A third-party provider

Note: When students are looking at this "page" online, they see and hear the textbook instructor talking in the area of his photograph, and they see his hands and fingers moving as he explains or demonstrates a concept. They can see a problem solved once and, if they need to, can watch it being solved again. (The instructor featured in the online textbook is not the same as the instructors who teach online trigonometry courses and who might use the textbook. As the publisher of the online textbook, Thinkwell hires university professors to deliver textbook content, whereas course providers hire their own instructors to teach online courses.)

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Last Modified: 10/05/2009