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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Re-post from the AECT BlogTrack - The Greatest Challenge for the Virtual High School

Keeping with the once weekly theme, here is the next installment from my participation in the AECT BlogTrack presentation. This one comes from back in April.

Over the past week, I have had the opportunity to attend the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). While there are literally thousands of sessions on almost as many different topics, the number of presentations dealing with K-12 online learning research projects can almost be counted on a single hand. One of these half dozen sessions was given by Sarah Haavind, based on his dissertation research at Harvard University, which examined collaboration in courses offered by the Virtual High School (VHS) consortium. Her presentation was interesting and she found many things that I believe could be valuable to othr virtual schools, however, there was one comment that she made that really caught my attention and that I just couldn’t get past. In the rationale for her study, she cited the five year evaluation of the VHS - Zucker and Kozma (2003) - and made the claim that according to this document the greatest challenge remaining with the VHS was increasing the level of collaboration in courses offered by the VHS.
Having read this book fairly thoroughly, I was both surprised and a little offended to have hear this comment. While I believe that student collaboration is an important aspect of the virtual school experience (in any virtual school) and that most do not do a good job of it, the greatest remaining challenge just floored me. What about making virtual school opportunities available to more than a select group of students? When you look at the virtual schools currently operating in the United States, you would be hard pressed to find one that is more selective in their student population than the VHS. Basically, in order to be successful in a VHS course this adolescent learner must become an independent, autonomous learner.

Concern about learner autonomy is a reality for virtual schooling, as evidenced by a number of recent studies. This past year North Central Regional Education Laboratory (NCREL) funded a series of studies in various quantitative aspects of virtual schooling across the United States. One of these studies examined student success in a secondary school algebra offered through the FLVS, in which Cavanuagh, Gillan, Bosnick, Hess and Scott (2005) noted that the virtual school students who did take their assessment may have been more academically motivated and naturally higher achieving students. In a similar NCREL study of student performance in algebra between virtual school and traditional classroom students, McLeod, Hughes, Brown, Choi and Maeda (2005) also speculated that the reason for the high virtual school student performance was due to the high dropout rate in virtual school courses. Many of the low-achieving virtual school students had already been removed from the sample prior to the assessment. They also indicated that the majority of virtual school students in the sample were doing the course for the second or third time, so familiarity with the content and the motivation to take advantage of their “last chance” were also potential factors in the difference.

In many studies like these two NCREL studies, the low retention or high attrition rates are pointed to as factors influencing the outcome of any comparison to classroom student performance. This problem, while better documented at the post-secondary level (see Moore, 2001), is a common one for virtual schools. For example, Clark (2002) found that the Illinois Virtual High School (IVHS) had a completion rate of only 53% during its first year of operation and 80% the following year. In their evaluation of the FLVS, Bigbie and McCarroll (2000) found that over half of the students who completed FLVS courses scored an A in their course and only 7% received a failing grade. They also found, however, that between 25% and 50% of students had dropped out of their FLVS over the previous two-year period. These findings lead one to wonder, as McLeod et al. (2005) did earlier, if all of the low-achieving students had already dropped out of their courses. The nature of students who are served by virtual schools has been a consistent discussion in the literature. Clark (2002), in his evaluation of the IVHS found that students who were “highly motivated, high achieving, self-directed and/or who liked to work independently” typically did well in the online environment (p. 41). These characteristics are more often attributed to adult learners, who are more self-directed and independent in their orientation to learning than adolescents.

This brings us back to the “most research virtual school in the United States,” the VHS consortium. The findings above are also supported by the work of SRI International and their five-year evaluation of the VHS. In their first year evaluation of the VHS, Kozma, Zucker and Espinoza (1998) found that the vast majority of students in their courses were planning to attend a four-year colleges. They also reported that two thirds of the teachers indicated that the VHS students were less likely to drop out of school than students in their classroom-based courses. These findings led the evaluators to conclude that “the current VHS curriculum [was] dominated by advanced courses that cater to students who are successful, independent, and college bound” (p. 49).

The following year, Espinoza, Dove, Zucker and Kozma (1999) reached similar conclusions when they stated that “VHS courses are predominantly designated as ‘honors,’ and students enrolled are mostly college bound” (p. 49). These finding were not surprising to the evaluators, as they indicated that the VHS’ own faculty handbook promoted this kind of selectivity:

Although all students should have access to the VHS catalog, we recommend that the school site coordinator and guidance counselors select students who can work independently and handle responsibility. (p.50)

In both the Clark (2002) and the Espinoza et al. (1999) evaluations, the authors recommended that the VHS take steps to increase the range of students served by the VHS. During the third year evaluation of the VHS, Kozma, Zucker, Espinoza, McGhee, Yarnall, Zalles and Lewis (2000) took a slightly different approach and focused upon four classes as a case study of the VHS model. The four courses selected were Advanced Placement Statistics, Modern Classics, Photographic Vision, and Pre-Engineering and Design. The students from these classes were described by their teachers as very capable academically and college bound. However, even with this selectivity the evaluators still found a higher dropout rate for the four VHS courses than for the face-to-face comparison groups. In a summary of their five-year evaluation of the VHS, Zucker and Kozma (2003) released the book The Virtual High School: Teaching Generation V. In this volume, they reported that students who were not expected to succeed in the VHS environment were discouraged from taking VHS courses and that more than four out of every five students in VHS courses were college preparatory.

Given these findings in virtual school environments in general, and specifically in the Virtual High School consortium (including being referenced in the Zucker and Komza book that Haavind based her dissertation on), is student collaborative in K-12 online learning really the greatest problem facing the VHS or any other virtual school?

Selected Bibliography:

Bigbie, C., & McCarroll, W. (2000). The Florida High School evaluation 1999-2000 report. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University.

Cavanuagh, C., Gillan, K.J., Bosnick, J., Hess, M., & Scott, H. (2005). Succeeding at the gateway: Secondary algebra learning in the virtual school. Unpublished report, Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida.

Clark, T. (2002). Final report: Illinois Virtual High School, 2001-2002. Aurora, IL: Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.

Espinoza, C., Dove, T., Zucker, A., & Kozma, R. (1999). An evaluation of the Virtual High School after two years in operation. Arlington, VA: SRI International. Retrieved on July 31, 2005 from http://ctl.sri.com/publications/downloads/evalvhs2yrs.pdf

Kozma, R., Zucker, A., & Espinoza, C. (1998). An evaluation of the Virtual High School after one year in operation. Arlington, VA: SRI International. Retrieved on July 31, 2005 from http://ctl.sri.com/publications/downloads/evalvhs1yr.pdf

Kozma, R., Zucker, A., Espinoza, C., McGhee, R., Yarnall, L., Zalles, D., & Lewis, A. (2000). The online course experience: Evaluation of the Virtual High School’s third year of implementation, 1999-2000. Arlington, VA: SRI International. Retrieved on July 31, 2005 from http://ctl.sri.com/publications/downloads/VHS_Online_Experience.pdf

McLeod, S., Hughes, J.E., Brown, R., Choi, J., & Maeda, Y. (2005). Algebra achievement in virtual and traditional schools. Unpublished report. Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates.

Moore, P. (2001). Access and success in web courses at an urban multicultural community college: The student’s perspective. Unpublished Dissertation, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AR.

Zucker, A., & Kozma, R. (2003). The Virtual High School: Teaching generation V. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

This entry was one of the few that generated a bit of discussion and even a trackback (granted that was from here). Anyway, here was the initial discussion:

Rick Says:
April 12th, 2006 at 3:14 pm


How are the pigeons? Very well articulated post. I agree that access is
sometimes swept under the rug in our efforts to improve learning. A good
question posed by David Wiley of Utah State to grad students at AECT two years
ago was whether it was more valuable to work to improve learning by 1, 2, or 3%
for a select few students, or to work to improve access to the vast majority of
people and children who have no opportunity for formal schooling at all. He
makes a strong case that the more pressing issue at hand right now is improving
access, not improving learning … because we have centuries of work on how to
improve learning and have made great strides in that area already.

I don’t really go along with that assessment completely. I feel that in the
new postmodern Information Age that we are in, there are many new unanswered
questions about how learning happens in today’s society. So I think research on
improving learning is still contemporary and important. But I also agree that we
often neglect a very large issue of simply improving access more equitably to
all students who want to learn.

As you wrote, it is probably premature to say collaboration is the most
important challenge of VHS when access is still limited.

Michael Says:
April 12th, 2006 at 3:26 pm


Limited? What percentage of secondary school students do you believe to be
included in the description of “students who can work independently and handle
responsibility” and “very capable academically and college bound”?

What we are talking about here is the top 1% to 5% of students in any given
school. Thinking of Georgia as a frame of reference, secondary schools typically
have 1500 to 2500 students (sometimes more in urban and suburban areas and
sometimes less in rural areas). So, the VHS serves somewhere between 15 to 125
of those students (1% of 1500 to 5% of 2500).

Yes Virginia, there are bigger challenges than collaboration.


Virtual High School Meanderings Says:
May 16th,
2006 at 7:35 am

Being Successful …

Okay, this is something that I have played around with in my head for a while
now - how does a student become successful in a virtual school environment?

On my AECT blogtrack blog (Virtual Schooling), I posted an entry a few weeks
back entitled The..

So, what do you think? Would like to add to this discussion here (which is really the purpose of these re-postings)?

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