Evaluating Online Learning: Challenges and Strategies for Success
July 2008

Featured Online Learning Evaluations
Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide Distance Learning

The Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, & Students Statewide (ACCESS) Distance Learning Initiative aims to provide all Alabama high school students "equal access to high quality instruction to improve student achievement." ACCESS was developed to support and expand existing distance learning initiatives in Alabama and to heighten their impact on student achievement. In particular, the aim was to provide more courses to students in small and rural schools. ACCESS courses are Web-based, utilize interactive videoconferencing (IVC) platforms, or combine both technologies. ACCESS offers courses in core subjects, plus foreign languages, electives, remedial courses, and advanced courses, including Advanced Placement (AP)* and dual credit courses. The courses are developed and delivered by Alabama-certified teachers. In addition to distance learning courses for students, ACCESS also provides teachers with professional development and multimedia tools to enhance instruction. ACCESS is coordinated by the Alabama State Department of Education and three regional support centers. By the end of 2006, ACCESS was serving almost 4,000 online users and over 1,000 IVC users and, ultimately, is intended to reach all public high schools in the state.

Algebra I Online

Algebra I Online began as a program under the Louisiana Virtual School, an initiative of the Louisiana Department of Education that provides the state's high school students with access to standards-based high school courses delivered by certified Louisiana teachers via the Internet. The program has two goals: To increase the number of students taught by highly qualified algebra teachers, especially in rural and urban areas, and to help uncertified algebra teachers improve their skills and become certified. In Algebra I Online courses, students participate in a face-to-face class that meets at their home school as part of the regular school day, and each student has a computer connected to the Internet. A teacher who may or may not be certified to deliver algebra instruction is physically present in the classroom to facilitate student learning, while a highly qualified, certified teacher delivers the algebra instruction online. The online instructor's responsibilities include grading assignments and tests, and submitting course grades; the in-class teacher oversees the classroom and works to create an effective learning environment. The online and in-class teachers communicate regularly during the year to discuss student progress. The algebra course is standards-aligned and incorporates e-mail, interactive online components, and video into the lessons. By the 2005-06 school year, 350 students in 20 schools were taking Algebra I Online courses, and five participating teachers had earned secondary mathematics certification.

Appleton eSchool

Based in Wisconsin's Appleton Area School District, Appleton eSchool is an online charter high school intended to provide high-quality, self-paced online courses. A few students choose to take their entire high school course load through Appleton eSchool, but most use the online courses to supplement those available at their home school. The school is open to all district high school students, but it makes special efforts to include those with significant life challenges. Appleton eSchool offers core subjects, electives (e.g., art, economics, Web design, "thinking and learning strategies"), and AP courses. Students can gain access to their Web-based courses around the clock and submit their assignments via the Internet. They can communicate with teachers using e-mail and online discussions, and receive oral assessments and tutoring by telephone and Web conference tools. Teachers regularly communicate student progress with a contact at the student's local school and with each student's mentor (usually the student's parent), whose role is to provide the student with assistance and encouragement. By 2007-08, the school was serving 275 students enrolled in over 500 semester courses. In addition, the 2007 summer session included another 400 semester course enrollments.

Arizona Virtual Academy

Arizona Virtual Academy (AZVA) is a public charter school serving students in grades kindergarten through 11 across Arizona. By 2006-07, AZVA was serving approximately 2,800 students up through the 10th grade and piloting a small 11th-grade program. AZVA offers a complete selection of core, elective, and AP courses, including language arts, math, science, history, art, music, and physical education. Courses are developed by veteran public and private school teachers and supplied to AZVA by a national curriculum provider, K12 Inc. In 2006-07, AZVA used Title I funds17 to add a supplemental math program for struggling students in grades 3 through 8. In all AZVA courses, certified teachers provide instruction and keep track of students' progress. Students participate in structured activities, and also study independently under the guidance of an assigned mentor. When families enroll with AZVA, the program sends them curricular materials, accompanying textbooks and workbooks, supplemental equipment and supplies, and a computer and printer, the latter two on loan. Students are assessed regularly, both for placement in the appropriate course level and to determine their mastery of course content.

Chicago Public Schools' Virtual High School

The Chicago Public Schools' Virtual High School (CPS/VHS) is intended to expand access to high-quality teachers and courses, especially for students who traditionally have been underserved. The program is a partnership with the Illinois Virtual High School (IVHS)—a well-established distance learning program serving the entire state. CPS/VHS offers a variety of online courses. To participate, students must meet prerequisites and are advised of the commitment they will need to make to succeed in the class. CPS/VHS leaders are clear that, in this program, online does not mean independent study: Courses run for a semester, students are typically scheduled to work online during the regular school day, and attendance during that time is required. On-site mentors are available to help students as they progress through the online classes. Despite this regular schedule, the program still offers flexibility and convenience not available in a traditional system because students can communicate with instructors and access course materials outside of regular class hours. Today, CPS/VHS offers over 100 online courses, and new classes are added when the district determines that the course will meet the needs of approximately 60 to 75 students.

Digital Learning Commons

Based in the state of Washington, the Digital Learning Commons (DLC) is a centrally hosted Web portal that offers a wide range of services and resources to students and teachers. DLC's core goal is to offer education opportunities and choices where they have not previously existed due to geographic or socioeconomic barriers. Through DLC, middle and high school students can access over 300 online courses, including all core subjects and various electives, plus Advanced Placement and English as a Second Language classes. DLC students also have access to online student mentors (made possible through university partnerships), and college and career-planning resources. DLC hosts an extensive digital library, categorized by subject area, for students, teachers, and parents. In addition, it includes resources and tools for teachers, including online curricula, activities, and diagnostics. It is integrated with Washington's existing K-20 Network—a high-speed telecommunications infrastructure that allows Washington's K-12 schools to use the Internet and interactive videoconferencing. When schools join DLC, program staff help them create a plan for using the portal to meet their needs and, also, provide training to help school faculty and librarians incorporate its resources into the classroom.


Maryland Public Television has partnered with Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education to create Thinkport, a Web site that functions as a one-stop shop for teacher and student resources. Thinkport brings together quality educational resources and tools from trusted sources, including the Library of Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, PBS, the Kennedy Center, the National Council of Teachers of English, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian Institution. The site is organized into four sections: classroom resources, career resources for teachers, instructional technology, and family and community resources. About 75 percent of the site's content is for teachers, including lesson plans and activities for students, all of which include a technology component. Thinkport also offers podcasts, video clips, blogs, and games, with accompanying information about how they can be used effectively in classrooms. One of Thinkport's most popular features is its collection of electronic field trips—a number of which were developed by Maryland Public Television under the U.S. Department of Education's Star Schools grant, a federal program that supports distance learning projects for teachers and students in underserved populations. Each field trip is essentially an online curricular unit that focuses in depth on a particular topic and includes many interactive components for students and accompanying support materials for teachers.

* Run by the nonprofit College Board, the Advanced Placement program offers college-level course work to high school students. Many institutions of higher education offer college credits to students who take AP courses.

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Last Modified: 10/20/2009