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.

Sharing Blended Learning Outcomes


As I continue to evolve as a blended learning educator, I decided to try and measure some of the effects of blended learning with my students. In a previous article, I documented how incorporating blended learning assignments into my traditional classroom raised my course passage rate. In this piece, I compare student performance along two, 10-week periods. The first was predominantly blended, or 1:1 iPad-based instruction, the second was predominately textbook-centric, or traditional paper and pencil-based instruction.


Armed with a proliferation of digital instructional resources, broadband, and inexpensive devices, many educators are combining online instruction with regular classroom instruction to improve students’ learning experiences. Staker and Horn (2011) classify blended learning as a formal education program where students learn, at least in part, through online delivery of content and instruction. Students have some level of control over time, place, path, and/or pace of instruction. Part or all of the instruction is delivered away from home in a supervised, brick-and-mortar location. This blending of online and face-to-face instruction is expected to be standard practice in in the future (Murphy, Snow, Mislevy, et al., 2014). The purpose of this article is to inspire conversation as to how educators can evaluate whether or not blended learning actually improves student outcomes in their classrooms. What variables should be examined? Can quasi-experimental studies be set up as action research projects without disrupting the classroom?

It was in this spirit, that I compared my blended classroom to my traditional classroom along four factors: (a) classwork completion; (b) homework completion; (c) assessment scores; and (d) course averages. Five random samples of classwork, homework, and assessments were analyzed for each 10-week period.

Table 1 (N=127) Blended Classroom Traditional Classroom
Classwork Completion Percentage 0.77 0.70
Homework Completion Percentage 0.71 0.63
Assessment Means 50.355 52.565
Course Averages 64.85 67.42

Students in this sample completed more of the blended classwork assignments. Students also completed more of the blended homework assignments. Assessment scores were similar, however, traditional instruction netted slightly higher means. Course averages were also similar, yet traditional classroom instruction had a slightly larger mean. Again, it should be noted that this was not a true empirical study. The sample size was not large enough to be generalizable. Further, I am not sure what the finding of higher engagement and participation, yet lower achievement signifies, but I will spend time reflecting on it.

Again, the purpose of this article was to provide educators switching from the traditional classroom role to a blended role with some data points for comparing their experiences. The results may not be as valid as those from a large scale study, however, as more 1:1 educators compare their student outcomes, we will learn what outcomes to expect and gather valuable context to evaluate which practices are the most effective. In order to do that, we need front line teachers to document their practices, collect data, and disseminate it. Educational journals will not publish this work, but we can share it in the blogosphere and the Twitterverse. Heck, I sure some teachers will even Snapchat this.


In conclusion, I will say that teaching with the iPads was novel, challenging, and frustrating at times, but best of all it was fun. My students loved using them and I enjoyed experimenting with them. Students read more, wrote more, viewed more historical content, and took more field trips to historical sites (even if they were virtual trips). In short, the iPads turned my classroom into a student-centered, active learning, historical thinking adventure. The entire experience rejuvenated my teaching. I can’t wait for the next school year. I suppose that’s a significant enough outcome for me.