Evaluating Online Learning: Challenges and Strategies for Success
July 2008

Recommendations for Utilizing and Building on the Existing Base of Knowledge
  • Look to established standards for online learning to determine elements of high--quality programs.

  • Program evaluation has a long history, and its basic approaches can be adapted to fit any unique educational program. The Program Evaluation Standards (1994) from the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation and other guides (see EvaluationMethods and Tools in appendix A) can be helpful to those developing an online learning evaluation.

  • Don't reinvent the wheel unless you have to—consult the list of distance education and evaluation resources in appendix A and identify program peers you can contact about their evaluation activities.

  • Participate in the community of evaluators and researchers studying K-12 online learning. Share evaluation tools and processes with others. Make them available online. Consider publishing in professional journals. Seek out networking venues such as conferences.

  • Use caution when interpreting evaluation findings from other programs, or adapting their methods. Online learning programs "come in many shapes and sizes," and findings about one online program or set of Web resources are not always generalizable. Take time to understand the program being studied and its context before deciding if the findings or methods are relevant and appropriate.

  • If developing new tools for collecting data or new processes for analyzing it, work collaboratively with leaders of similar programs or experts from other agencies to fill gaps in knowledge.

Important Questions for K-12 Online Learning Evaluators and Practitioners

In a synthesis of research on K-12 online learning, Rosina Smith of the Alberta Online Consortium, Tom Clark of TA Consulting, and Robert Blomeyer of Blomeyer & Clemente Consulting Services developed a list of important questions for researchers of K-12 online learning to consider.14 That list, which drew from the work of Cathy Cavanaugh et al.,15 has been adapted here for program and evaluation practitioners. Of course, no evaluation can cover all of these questions; this list is meant to provide a starting point for discussing evaluation goals and topics of interest.

Learner outcomes. What is the impact of the K-12 online learning program on student achievement? What factors can increase online course success rates? What impact does the program have on learner process skills, such as critical and higher-order thinking? How are learner satisfaction and motivation related to outcomes?

Learner characteristics. What are the characteristics of successful learners in this K-12 online learning program, and can success be predicted? How do learner background, preparation, and screening influence academic outcomes in the program?

Online learning features. What are the most effective combinations of media and methods in the online learning program? How do interaction, collaboration, and learner pacing influence academic outcomes? What is the impact of the K-12 online learning program when used as a supplement, in courses, or in full programs of study?

Online teaching and professional development. What are the characteristics of successful teachers in this K-12 online learning program? Are the training, mentoring, and support systems for these teachers effective?

Education context. What kinds of programs and curricula does the K-12 online learning program offer? How can the program best be used to improve learner outcomes in different content areas, grade levels, and academic programs? How can it help participating schools meet NCLB requirements? How do resources, policy, and funding impact the success of the program? Can an effective model of K-12 online learning be scaled up and sustained by the program?

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Last Modified: 10/20/2009