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?