Will Online Learning Help Students?

My recent posts about UC Scout helping low-income students increase access to A-G and AP courses caused me to reflect about an experience while I was principal of a small high school (350 students). A vocal and generally supportive group of parents wanted a math teacher to oversee a small class (11 students) of AP Calculus. Unfortunately, 143 students (approximately 40% of the school) had failed Algebra 1. Thus, I had the choice of do I devote a teacher to instructing a small group of gifted students, or do I devote a teacher to help the students who still need to pass Algebra? Several parents threatened to move their child from the school if the teacher was not provided to the AP Calculus class.


As a compromise, we agreed to have the students take AP Calculus online. The math teacher agreed to work with the students during her conference period. Another teacher who was working toward Calculus certification agreed to host the students in his classroom and go through the Apex curriculum with them. Unfortunately, this solution did not work for the students, who found the independent work to be above their abilities. None of the students were able to score a 3 on the AP test, and receive credit.

I now realize that these results were consistent with this report on UC Scout, which indicated no matter how advanced the computer explanations are of A-G or AP course work, the vast majority of students will not succeed unless they have a caring teacher, who is an expert in the subject to troubleshoot, advise, intervene, offer multiple explanations, coach, cajole, and coax them through the course.

Another teacher recently contacted me via Twitter. She will be co-teaching a virtual course for the first time this fall. Since her grasp of the subject matter is not at the expert level, she was concerned that she might not be able to help students succeed in a hybrid online/in-person class.

My answer was to build a relationship with the students first, then focus on student needs to define what you want to accomplish as a teacher. Should your students read more, write more, collaborate more, or create more? Technology is merely a learning tool to help achieve that goal. Develop metrics that help monitor student progress. For students who need to read more, supplement the online readings with in class Socratic circles. For students who need to write more, set up goal-setting strategies like word production, or the number of claims and counter claims in a piece of writing. For students who need to collaborate more, set up a series of team-building, problem-solving tasks centered on the course subject matter. Lastly, for students who need to create more, arrange showings of their work and invite a real audience to judge it via an online polling tool. Students engage more when they know an audience will view their work. The audience can be peers, teachers, administrators, parents, or members of the community.

As districts experiment with blended learning staffing models in traditional brick and mortar schools, I suspect we will see the educational version of supply side economics revealed again and again. Students who have the support at home and the drive to persist will not experience difficulty in online classes; however, the students without this support and without this grit will not be helped by online courses. Teachers who are capable of building positive and productive relationships with students will become crucial in a blended learning environment.



  1. You are right about the motivational problem for students learning online. But I do believe (like you) that there is some kind of blended learning that can work. All the best.

    • Thanks Aiyshah, today’s post shows that 60% of online students are successful in CA’s community colleges. Should we expect that level of success from MOOCs or K12 online students? CA is investing $50M in higher ed online courses. What return will the state see on that investment?

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