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.

Online Teacher Taxonomy

UCSD researchers have classified the types of in-person supports that teachers provided to students enrolled in online UC Scout courses. These seven roles are: (a) Humans as fixers/explainers of technology; (b) Humans as digesters of content; (c) Humans as explainers of content; (d) Humans as extenders of content, toward application; (e) Human as providers of feedback and assessment; (f) Humans as regulators of the learning experience; and (g) Human peers as supporters of the learning experience. Examples from each category are explained in great detail in the report. I offer a summary below.


Personally, I should note that I objected to the phrase “humans as” that the researchers used as a prefix to the classifications in the report. I understand they were interested in examining the human role in virtual learning, but the language usage of “human supports” was off-putting to me and caused me to stop reading the report several times. Perhaps “in-person supports” would be less distracting.

Humans as fixers/explainers of technology involves helping students overcome tech glitches, broken links, freezing videos or animations. These tasks most likely do not require the presence of a highly qualified, subject matter expert and could be done by a paraprofessional.

Humans as digesters of content is when teachers cherry pick online material from the course that may be particularly important to upcoming assessments or activities. This could encompass creating study guides that help the students navigate through the large body of course readings and independent practice modules. Most likely, a subject matter expert is required for this task.

Humans as explainers of content. The UC Scout courses explain key concepts mainly via online text sections, then sometimes they supplement these explanations with videos, and/or animations. Many students required in-person support to clarify components that were not fully comprehensible to them. Again, a subject matter expert is most likely required for this complex task.

Humans as extenders of content, toward application describes class and individual discussions of course concepts. UC Scout leaves this to the instructor’s discretion. Some teachers heavily supplement online material with face-to-face discussions, which students credit with helping them apply the concepts rather than simply defining them correctly on assessments. This also included hands-on labs for science courses, where teachers provided in-person support for “doing science.” It is unclear whether this role could be fulfilled by an experienced TA, or if it requires a subject matter expert.

Human as providers of feedback and assessment asks a teacher to monitor student progress, provide 1-1 help and small group instruction on fundamentals that students do not understand from the online curriculum. This role requires an in-person teacher to use the data from the course, but also develop relationships with students in order to greater assist them. This role is especially crucial for students who are repeating a class and may require more monitoring and coaching from a TA or teacher in class than other students who are making good progress in UC Scout’s self-paced instructional program. Again, it is unclear whether this role could be fulfilled by an experienced TA, or a subject matter expert, who can verify student comprehension, adjust assessments based on student progress, and offer highly individualized motivational support.

Humans as regulators of the learning experience can also mean regulators of student behavior. TAs expressed frustration with students who did not want to be enrolled in the class and did not try to complete the course work. This function may not be essential if online courses screen for student motivation and do not allow these students to enroll in online classes. In theory in-person regulation of the learning experience should be unnecessary as computers should monitor and support individual pacing. In this study, however, there was considerable variation in the courses over the amount of in person regulation was required to keep low-income students on task. It remains to be seen how essential this role will be as online education matures.

Human peers as supporters of the learning experience is a role that was revealed by student surveys. When allowed to work together, students regularly relied on peers for support before and after turning to the adult instructors. Therefore, peer support may be provided by fellow students, course TAs, family members and not require a highly qualified teacher.

I have found this overlooked report to be very helpful in helping me understand the pros and cons of UC Scout. The goal of the premade, UC-vetted courses may have been to increase access to AP and A-G courses for low-income students, but the results may be another opportunity for the educational rich to get richer. Students who are experienced in digital education, motivated, and have educational support structures already in place will have an advantage over low-income students. I wonder what unintended consequences will result from this well-intentioned program?

Equity Issues In Online Ed

A recent 84 page report from UCSD dives deep into a myriad of issues around the online courses offered by UC Scout. Particularly, its focus on the ability of online courses to level the playing field and the recasting of the roles of a teacher in online education should receive more attention. Low income students are unlikely to have access to A-G courses that count toward college. These students are also less likely to have sufficient numbers of AP or Honors courses offered to them. The report indicates that UC Scout, formerly UCCP, was created to remedy this situation.


Approximately 80,000 students enroll in the twenty-five A-G courses offered by UC Scout each year. Another program, UC Online, has received considerable criticism for failing to attract learners, only 1,700 students have enrolled in 14 classes (Asimov, 2013). After accounting for their $4.3 million dollar marketing budget, UC Online paid $2,529 apiece to attract each student willing to pony up $1,400 for an online course from UC.  Interestingly, a Coursera MOOC co-branded by UC Irvine has enrolled over 13,000 educators who want to learn The Foundations of Virtual Instruction.

There is skepticism in general about virtual, online, distance, hybrid, or blended education programs. Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel have done some interesting work researching virtual schooling. They report the on-time graduation rate for the virtual K12 schools is 49.1%, compared with a rate of 79.4% for the states in which K12 operates schools. Across grades 3-11, the K12 schools’ scores were between two and 11 percentage points below the state average in reading. In math, K12 students score, on average, between 14 and 36 percentage points lower than students in their host states, with the gap increasing dramatically for students in higher grades.

Alex Molnar also has some valuable insights on virtual schooling. Compared with conventional public schools, he found that full-time virtual schools serve relatively few Black and Hispanic students, students who are poor, and special education students. In addition, on the common metrics of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), state performance rankings, and graduation rates, full-time virtual schools lag significantly behind traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

Considering these results, it is illogical to assume that UC Scout will become a robust engine for improving equity in public education and enroll considerable numbers of low-income students in A-G coursework, or for AP credit without providing additional incentives for using their product. A recent test guaranteed UC admission to students who passed a college level Math remediation MOOC, completion rates were much higher than average.

Another overlooked benefit hidden in this report may be that the researchers investigating UC Scout have been able to identify seven supports that online teachers offer to their students. As the online education market matures (remember your introductory economics class – markets undergoing perfect competition have their profits return to zero), this framework may result in a new taxonomy for online teacher-student interactions, present important new variables to consider in classroom observations, or teacher evaluations, and provide additional data that may justify differentiating compensation rates for online teacher specialists. My next post will examine these seven supports.

Virtual school churn rates reflect a concern that the online education marketplace has preyed on our weakest and most vulnerable students. Early data from MOOCs show that the students most likely to complete course requirements already have college degrees and full time employment (Hill, 2014). If the online educational market proves to be a case study of the educational rich getting richer, is it morally acceptable to invest additional public education monies into this sector? Drs. Burch and Good argue this point in an upcoming book called Equal Scrutiny. If this pattern continues, perhaps instead of peddling to credit deficient students, students with behavior problems, and homeschoolers, online schools should only target proficient, advanced, and GATE students in efforts to prove that their learning model is viable and worthy of replication?







The Teacher’s Role in Online Classes

Many low-income schools do not offer enough high quality Advanced Placement (AP) or A-G (college prep) courses required for students who wish to attend competitive universities. The University of California has offered credit for college prep online course for years, and is now enlarging their virtual learning offerings with a program called UC Scout.


These courses are designed to support independent students, however, UC requires that a local or remote teacher provide weekly assistance, monitor assignments, proctor final exams, and offer labs. In other words, UC regards the relationship between a teacher and student as so integral to learning that it won’t sell its content to schools or districts unwilling to pair online learning with a high touch human connection.

UCSD educational researchers examined the types of support in-person teachers provided to 200 low-income students enrolled in Scout courses at four high schools. They characterized the seven roles that emerged from this inquiry as (a) Humans as fixers/explainers of technology; (b) Humans as digesters of content; (c) Humans as explainers of content; (d) Humans as extenders of content, toward application; (e) Human as providers of feedback and assessment; (f) Humans as regulators of the learning experience; and (g) Human peers as supporters of the learning experience. These categories may evolve over time, but they offer an important first step in categorizing the taxonomy of teaching in this new milieu.

While previous posts have offered teachers data points and learning outcomes from my blended classroom to consider as they move their instruction toward a 1:1 model, this post is to encourage teachers making the transition from a traditional classroom approach to blended pedagogy to consider these labels as they recast their teaching style.

My next few posts will be devoted to analyzing how these new seven teacher roles will affect teachers influenced by behaviorist, cognitivist, and constructivist learning theories. It remains to be seen whether these new roles will give teachers additional opportunities to deepen their relationships with students, and create more positive interactions in their classrooms, or will the new roles create new barriers to educators looking to connect with their students?

I recently read a book called Evocative Coaching. It states there is minimal evidence that the teacher observation methods currently in place lead to any significant improvement in student achievement. Reduced resources and expanding expectations have teachers feeling disheartened, discouraged, and in a downward spiral. When a large organization is full of people who aren’t doing well, or having fun, something needs to change. We need to make two shifts in replacing teacher observations with evocative coaching: (1) move from evaluation to valuation; (2) move from problem-solving to strength-building. Ed Tech coaches, in particular, need to start conversations around these seven new teaching roles, and articulate a vision about how teachers in both traditional and online courses should recast their responsibilities.


Pollock, M., et al. (2014). Innovating toward equity with online courses: Testing the optimal blend of in-person human supports with low-income you and teachers in California. The Center for Research on Educational Equity. University of California San Diego. La Jolla, CA. Accessed at http://create.ucsd.edu/research/CREATE%20Equity%20RR_1Mar2014.pdf

Tschannen-Moran, Bob & Megan (2010) Evocative Coaching:  Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass