Photo by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Photo by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The Fresno Unified School District has figured out a relatively simple way to dramatically increase the pass rates of high school students who enroll in online courses to make up for classes they have failed in a traditional classroom setting.

Instead of letting students work at home, the district makes students take the online course while they are still at school—and provides a teacher in the computer lab or classroom to offer guidance and answer questions.

Fresno’s experience could prove useful to other districts considering online learning. Increasingly, schools are turning to online courses as a cost-effective way to help high school students get enough credits to graduate.

Online learning has grown from roughly 45,000 students taking a course in 2000 to more than 4 million by 2010, according to a May 2011 paper by Heather Staker of the Innosight Institute, a nonprofit organization in Mountain View, California.

Requiring classroom time for online courses—often referred to as “blended learning”—is a growing trend, Staker wrote in the report,  The Rise of K–12 Blended Learning: Profiles of emerging models.

Educators have found that many students who are failing do not have the study habits and perseverance needed to succeed on their own in an online course. Fresno students are no different, according to Tom Nixon, who coordinates the online program for Fresno.

“You’re requiring students to be more responsible when responsibility is one of their issues,” he said.

And just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s easier. Fresno uses courses developed by Apex Learning, a company that is known for its digital Advanced Placement courses and its rigor. Last year, Fresno offered social science and English classes. Final exams were not multiple-choice but required written, essay-type responses.

Fresno developed its approach to online learning through trial and error. Its program began in October 2010. That fall semester, students who wanted to take online courses could do so and were free to do most of their work at home, resulting in only 23% successfully finishing their courses.

The district then decided to be more selective about who would be allowed to take online courses. Nixon and his colleagues looked at grades and, more importantly, attendance. Students who had good attendance, they decided, were more reliable and more likely to complete their work. In addition, students were expected to spend more time after school in the computer lab, staffed by a teacher, working on their online classes. That spring, 43% completed their courses.

In the summer, Fresno required more classroom time. The online students had to go to school for 5 ½ hours each day for 11 days—the same amount of time as students in regular summer classes. They spent those hours in a computer lab with a teacher, who was available to help them with the coursework or with technical problems. They could also take their work home after school.

“That’s a lot of instruction,” Nixon said. “They have to be pretty seriously working on the course.”

Almost 95% of the students earned an A, B, or C this past summer.

Nixon said the Apex program has also proven to be cost effective. The school pays $150 a “seat,” but more than one student can fill this seat sequentially throughout the year. Thus, four different students could use one seat—one student per semester and two during the summer, when the district offers two sessions.

Fresno is still tweaking its online high school program. This year, the district is allowing students to take an online makeup course during the school day instead of an elective class that a student chooses to take such as art or robotics. The district has also added a non-lab science course to the online curriculum. And Nixon has other ideas for the future.

“I’m always thinking about taking the program into middle school,” he said. “But we haven’t had that conversation yet.”

Is online learning right for your child?  Here’s a guide to what to ask, and what to look out for. 

What does the research show?

Several recent research studies of online courses at community colleges have direct relevance for the high school experience.  Underwritten by the Lumina Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a study released last summer that tracked community colleges in Washington State over a five-year period concluded that “students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses.”

A similar study in Virginia came to the same conclusion. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, “online students often have little training in how to navigate the online interfaces of their courses and struggle to manage their coursework without the grounding of weekly class meetings.”

A study at a Texas community college found that students in online developmental classes (classes students must take before they are allowed to take college-level courses) had among the highest failure rates—around 60 percent.


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  1. Well said. Completion and drop-out rates in full-time, online schools are far worse than in brick and mortar schools. The blended model you describe also includes a careful selection process to ensure students are more likely to pass. This raises the question, are some students being pushed out of regular schools and into online learning? Do at-risk students require a more sophisticated and engaging curriculum than what is currently offered?