I recently came across an article that appears in the January 2017 issue of Educational Researcher. The article shares research that was conducted by June Ahn and Andrew McEachin on the enrollment patterns and achievement in online charter schools in Ohio. While the research focused entirely on preK-12 environments, I think the findings and commentary transcend academic settings and communicate some important messages to all of us working in education.
In Ahn and McEachin’s study, they examined which students opted into online or face-to-face charter schools across the state. They disaggregated this data to look at various demographics (race, socioeconomic status, geography, etc.) to identify trends across populations. They found that while more poor White students choose to enroll in online charter schools, poor minority students typically choose “brick and mortar” charter schools. While the authors don’t specifically discuss their interpretations of these findings, when I shared the research with an African-American doctoral student recently, she proposed that minority families see schools as a critical center of the community, especially in urban areas. Without a physical location, she explained, online charter schools didn’t offer that same sense of community to families. While there’s no data in the study to support this interpretation, the explanation made sense considering the geographical map that the authors share.
Digging a little deeper, I found that my student’s explanation also helped to shed some light on the findings that the authors share regarding the achievement levels of online students. The authors write:
“Our results show that students in (online charter schools) are performing worse on standardized assessments that their peers in traditional charter and traditional public schools.” (p. 44)
This is a horrible testament to online charter schools. Online students are not demonstrating the same academic growth when compared to students in other educational environments. The knee jerk reaction would be to dismiss online schooling outright and to create regulations to ban online schooling as an option. To their credit, Ahn and McEachin discuss this in the concluding remarks:
“One potential and simplistic implication is that online schools are unequivocally negative for K12 learners and policy should deter these school forms. A more nuanced understanding is that online schools – in its current form as a largely independent learning experience- are not effective for K12 students. Instead, learners still need the presence of teachers, mentors, or peers to help them through the learning process. This interpretation instead suggests different policy implications. In addition, online curriculum might be designed and employed to efficiently deliver content but combined with new ways of distributing human support (e.g. different teaching or mentoring practices) that could serve students more effectively.”
While the research provides some damning evidence for the academic impacts on online education, it also provides an important message for those of us who teach online and prepare teachers to work online. Like my doctoral student said, it’s really about community. Online classes that are designed so that students interact with content alone are isolating and have damaging impact on students. Online classes that offer a supportive community including peers, counselors, mentors and teachers provide a different experience for students. Learning is a social process and we need to design our online classes and online schools to reflect this. Rather than focus solely on content delivery, we need to create online schools where community is built and design classes where the social and human elements of learning take center stage.
Ahn, J., & McEachin, A. (2017). Student enrollment patterns and achievement in Ohio’s online charter schools. Educational Researcher, 46(1), 44-57