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Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Need for a Common Language

Okay, this was posted in one of the NACOL forums a while back and I'm just getting to it.
Are cyber schools the answer?
Online learning clicks for some, but Oregon wants to know more before it lets other firms teach

Thursday, December 27, 2007
BETSY HAMMOND The Oregonian Staff

Ten-year-old Noa Adams sits quietly at the end of her family's dining room table, her bare feet wrapped around the chair legs.

It's test time. Alone with a book, paper and pencil, she works silently through questions about vocabulary, analogies and characters in the children's novel "Sign of the Beaver."

This is a regular school day for the Beaverton fifth-grader, but there are no teachers, blackboards or classmates anywhere in sight. Noa finishes quickly.
"OK, Mom, I'm all done!" she calls out and bounds into the kitchen.

Her mom logs into Connections Academy, Oregon's biggest cyber school, on a laptop. She clicks her way to the reading quiz, enters Noa's answers and instantly learns that she got 10 of 11 questions correct, with grades for the two essay questions to come soon.

"I've always been really good at reading," Noa says.

Traditional elementary school, however, was not a good fit for dramatic, talkative Noa. She learns best in a dimly lit room with no interruptions. By third grade, she was a stressed-out wreck of a student, lost in a swirl of classroom papers and chatter, she and her mother say.

Now she is one of 1,840 students in kindergarten through grade 11 who learn from Connections Academy. In its third year, the school has mushroomed from an untested concept into the 20th-largest public school in the state.

Two other online education companies want to follow Connections Academy and gain a foothold in Oregon.

Concerned that cyber schools would drain students from traditional schools, lawmakers passed a law barring online schools from operating statewide without permission of the state school board. Connections Academy was granted an exemption to stay open until 2010.

State board members are set to decide by March whether to allow more online schools. Before making that call, the board wants to know more about the value and reliability of the new breed of schools.

Do cyber schools deliver a quality education? Or are they a ploy to enrich shareholders by offering a low-cost program that leaves students largely teaching themselves?

How well students fare in these schools has yet to be established by solid research. A new report titled "Keeping Pace" that was financed by for-profit online schools concluded that "data to evaluate online programs against face-to-face education are lacking."

Scores look promising

Early signs from Oregon Connections Academy are promising.

The school's 2007 scores on the state reading test beat the statewide average in five of six grades tested, and the school roughly matched statewide performance in math and writing. Roughly 5 percent of its students need special education services, and passing rates among those pupils were nearly as high as for non-disabled students.

Assistant Principal Don Brown says next spring's tests will better answer how well the school boosts achievement.

Connections Academy parents interviewed by The Oregonian rave about the school's ability to challenge their children and to let them learn at their own pace.

In Washington, the first online for-profit high school -- Insight School of Washington, run by a Portland company -- saw its 50 10th-graders match state averages on reading, writing and science scores in its first year last spring. Math performance was disappointing, with only 38 percent of sophomores passing the state exam.

Not all online schools are equal, and one spectacular failure in Colorado got a lot of attention. Hope On-Line Learning Academy, overseen by a tiny rural school district, got nearly $8 million in public funding in one year -- yet had only four certified teachers for its 1,500 students.

Students posted lower achievement at the end of the school year than when they entered Hope's program, said Denise Mund of the Colorado Department of Education. As a result, her department was ordered to help oversee online schools rather than leave it to a local district alone, as Oregon does.

Despite the Hope debacle, Mund advises Oregon to open the door to online schools. "That's the way students are headed. I would say learn from the lessons learned in other states . . . but in general, let it flourish."

In a survey last spring answered by 60 percent of Oregon Connections Academy families, 94 percent of parents rated the school excellent or good.

For Pam Grabenhorst of Toledo, the best thing about the online school is that her academically gifted fourth-grader, Philip, can work at his own supercharged pace instead of waiting for the rest of the class, something the boy says left him "bored to death" last year in his neighborhood school.

Her son Ian, a seventh-grader with an attention disorder, is getting his schoolwork completed for the first time in years, in part because he can work at a single subject until he finishes rather than having to jump from subject to subject every 50 minutes.

Even Grabenhorst's kindergartner, Eli, is enrolled in the cyber school, although he goes to the local elementary school two days a week to get speech therapy. Online charter schools must ensure that special education students get appropriate services at no cost to them.

Not for all learners

Leaders of Connections Academy and other cyber schools emphasize that online schools aren't for every student.

Connected to their teachers by phone, e-mail and the Internet, Connections Academy students learn primarily on their own and with the help of their "learning coach" -- typically a parent or grandparent.

Young students learn mostly from textbooks and supporting materials. Older students rely more on live and recorded lessons, complete with an instructor's voice and catchy graphics, delivered via computer.

Teachers, counselors and principals whom students may never meet monitor their progress via a clickable electronic record of every assignment, quiz and online lesson. If a student is falling behind or does poorly on a quiz, teachers are quick to phone and e-mail to offer help.

Philip and Ian Grabenhorst both say the one thing they miss about regular school is the chance to be with friends.

Connections Academy parents say they enroll their children in youth sports leagues, art classes and science labs to make sure they get to socialize. Others say church activities or neighborhood kids provide that opportunity.

Eamonn Stenzel, a Southeast Portland fifth-grader who transferred to Connections Academy this year, says he misses his friends at school -- and misses the big jungle gym, swing sets and tether ball court on the playground.

For recess and P.E., Connections Academy students commonly jump rope, ride bikes and walk around their neighborhood -- not as fun as playground tether ball, Eamonn says.

Still, Philip, Ian and Eamonn want to stick with the cyber school next year, they say, because they feel successful.

Costs in dispute

The state provides as much tax money to educate a Connections Academy student as it does for one in a regular school: about $6,000 a year.

Critics say that's not fair to taxpayers or other public school students because online schools don't have to pay to keep school buildings maintained. And their personnel costs are lower, too: The average Oregon public school has one teacher for every 19 students, while Connections Academy operates with just half that many: 38 students per teacher.

Calculating the true costs of cyber schools has proved contentious. But some states pay less per student to online schools because their operating costs are lower, the "Keeping Pace" report says.

Tracey Remington, Noa's mom, was beside herself as she watched her daughter struggle in the neighborhood elementary. Noa got a tentative diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder, her mother says. The girl was painfully distracted in class.

Remington began going to the school each day to help Noa get her assignments straight. But it wasn't enough, and she feared she would have to home-school Noa.

"Oh, good gravy," Remington remembers telling herself. "I don't have the patience or the time. And I don't want to be a teacher."

Flash forward a year and a half, and Remington is happy to boast about her children's successes rather than fret over their frustrations.

Although her youngest child, Gabriella, goes to the neighborhood school for first-grade, seventh-grader Kevin has joined sister Noa in attending online school at home.

The siblings like to goof off during playtime. But they don't talk much during "school," spending most of their time working in separate rooms.

With her youngest in school, Tracey Remington hoped to be in college herself, preparing for a career in imaging technology, not at home overseeing elementary and middle school lessons. Connections Academy is off-limits for any student who can't arrange for a learning coach to be home with them for five or six hours, five days a week.

"I will do whatever I need to to make my child successful," Remington says. "I'm just so grateful to have this option."

Betsy Hammond: 503-294-7623; betsyhammond@ news.oregonian.com


A surge of online schools
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Three companies run statewide online schools in multiple states. They draw tax money and make a profit for their shareholders and investors: Oregon Connections Academy Students: 1,840 in kindergarten through grade 11 Run by: Baltimore-based Connections Academy Chartered by: Scio School District, east of Salem, with 700 students of its own Opened: Fall 2005 Teachers: 48, for a 38-1 pupil-teacher ratio. All hold current or expired teaching certificates. Insight School of Washington Students: 925 in grades 9-12 Run by: Portland-based Insight Schools, owned by the same firm as the University of Phoenix, a nationwide for-profit online college for working adults Authorized by: Quillayute Valley School District based in Forks on the Olympic Peninsula, with 1,230 resident students. Opened: Fall 2006 Teachers: 23 full-time and 45 part-time teachers, who all hold Washington teaching licenses Can operate in Oregon? Only on a small scale, primarily within the Lincoln County School District, unless state officials grant a waiver Washington Virtual Academy Students: 2,275 in kindergarten through grade 10 Run by: Virginia-based K12 Inc., founded by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett Authorized by: Steilacoom School District, south of Tacoma, which has about 2,500 students of its own Opened: Fall 2006 Teachers: All with Washington teaching certificates Can operate in Oregon? Only on a small scale, primarily within the North Bend school district, unless state officials grant a waiver.
The reason I'm just getting to it is for a variety of reasons. The first is because, as you can tell from the article, the cyber school that they are describing here is the same kind of cyber school that are experiencing problems in Wisconsin (see More on Virtual Schooling in Wisconsin) - although not the same company. You see, the cyber school in this story is a cyber charter school that relies heavily upon parents to do the actual teaching - and as I've discussed before I really have problems with this model, at least with this model being funded in the same way as supplemental virtual school programs or brick and mortar schools.

The other reason why is because I have been waiting for some thing to connect together a train of thought that I have been working on for the past year or so. This is the problem of language... Take for example, this item from Online Learning Update which appeared in my Bloglines back in August:
Like them or not, cyber schools prove accountable - DENNIS TULLI, Lebanon Daily News By Ray

As a former superintendent of the Lebanon School District, I understand the frustration that school leaders in the regular “bricks-and-mortar” education world often feel when confronted with a model for learning, such as cyber-charter schools, that impacts their usual operations. But I also know from direct, personal experience that the charges that cyber-charters are unaccountable and afloat in...
This story uses the same terminology as the previous story, at last somewhat... You'll note that in the Oregon piece uses the term charter only twice. Once in the body of the article about half way down at the very end of a section, and then once in the post-script as it describes the cyber school. As someone who is quite active in the virtual school movement and has been conducting research into this for much of the last eight or nine years, I see the term cyber school and if it is reference to a American school I automatically know that they are referring to a charter school. I also know that in all likelihood they are referring to a school operated by Connections Academy or K12, Inc.. But do everyone know these differences and what these terms mean? Do the readers of The Oregonian? How about the readers of the Lebanon Daily News?

Even for my regular readers, and those familiar with the virtual school community, if you look at Darren Cannell's blog:
Teaching and Developing Online
This blog will focus on the teaching of High School online. There are many approaches to online education and we are here to share them. The tint of the cyber glasses are a result of working at the Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School.
Are you confident that you understand what connotations the title of his cyber school carries and how that may or may not affect "the tint of [his] glasses"?

Even researchers have yet to settle on firm definitions. For example, the most commonly used definition of virtual school is Clark (2000) defined virtual schools as “a state approved and/or regionally accredited school that offers secondary credit courses through distance learning methods that include Internet-based delivery” (p. i). However, there are some who use the definition put forward by Barker, Wendel and Richmond (1999), who defined a virtual school as “one that offers the mandated provincial instructional program to students through web-based means (i.e., computer-mediated and online via the Internet)” (p. 2). Further, they described a virtual school as being “characterized by a structured learning environment under the direct supervision of a teacher, web-based delivery to home or in a setting other than that of the teacher, and contains instruction that may be synchronous or asynchronous” (p. 2). In the complete description of their definition, Barker et al. described how a virtual school was one where students took all of their courses in the virtual environment.

One researcher who often uses this more restrictive definition of a virtual school is Dr. Elizabeth Murphy of Memorial University.
I mention her specifically because she publishes about the same "virtual school" that I have conducted and published most of my research about - I always call this school a virtual school, while she indicates that it is not a virtual school but an example of virtual schooling. So even when you have two researchers writing about the same virtual school we aren't using the same terminology.

To take this a step further, the most recent book about virtual schooling has adopted an even more general terms to describe this phenomenon, as noted by this entry from Online Learning Update:
New Book from ISTE Explores Online Learning in K-12 Education
By Ray

A new book from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) "What Works in K-12 Online Learning" explores the growing phenomenon of education delivered primarily via the Internet. Driven by a number of factors, the increase of K-12 enrollments in online courses presents both great promise and some real challenges. Here's your research-based guide to what works from more than two...
I understand the logic for Drs. Cavanaugh and Blomeyer using K-12 online learning as their descriptive term, as they are trying to encompass virtual schools, cyber schools (and the multiple meanings that this second term carries), district intranets, etc.. It is also the more general general terms that the professional association for virtual schooling has adopted (i.e., NACOL - the North American Council for Online Learning). I should also note that Dr. Cavanaugh's last book used the term virtual schools Development and Management of Virtual Schools: Issues and Trends), as does almost all of her writing.

So, where does this leave us? Well, I would like to think that it leaves us with the justification for a project that I am working on with a group of graduate students in my own department at Wayne State University:

Virtual Schooling Glossary and Definitions

This research group that I have formed is focused on K-12 online learning. At present we have about a dozen students and myself. We meet monthly to discuss readings that I select (with input from the students) - for example, this semester we are starting by reading Drs. Cavanaugh's and Blomeyer's new book. We also work on different projects together and individually, for example I have one student who is planning her dissertation focusing on the experiences of lower ability students in a virtual school environment, I have two students that are completing analyses of data that I collected pertaining to K-12 student impressions of the benefits and challenges of online learning, and this project (just to name a few).

I mention this project here because I want this resource to be useful to as many people in the virtual school community as possible. One of the ways that we can ensure that it becomes a useful resource is to make sure that we do a comprehensive job on this glossary in the first place. So, take some time to look through the terms that we have identified thus far and if you believe that we are missing any post them as a comment to this blog entry. I look forward to your feedback.

Note that once we finish this resource I will post another entry to let you know that it has been completed and I will endeavour to have others, such as NACOL, SREB, and the Virtual School Clearinghouse (among others) to link to it.


Barker, K., Wendel, T., & Richmond, M. (1999). Linking the literature: School effectiveness and virtual schools. Vancouver, BC: FuturEd. Retrieved July 31, 2005 from http://www.canlearn.ca/planning/pro/support/pdf/ComparingVirtualConventional.pdf

Clark, T. (2000). Virtual high schools: State of the states - A study of virtual high school planning and preparation in the United States: Center for the Application of Information Technologies, Western Illinois University. Retrieved July 4, 2005 from http://www.ctlt.iastate.edu/research/projects/tegivs/resources/stateofstates.pdf

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