APS virtual summer school pilot: Online or off course?

Nearly 800 high school students in the Atlanta Public Schools attended an online summer school that had to be overhauled when it became clear it wasn’t moving students fast or far enough.

Along with adding two days to the 16-day summer term, APS discarded the online component and brought in teachers for small group instruction.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

In explaining the sudden shift, APS spokeswoman Jill Strickland told the AJC, “The district took this action based on the varying learning modalities of our students — meaning some students work better face-to-face.”

I asked APS for more information — specifically, was its online summer term a flop? My goal wasn’t to denigrate APS for innovating, but to get a better fix on what works and what doesn’t in virtual classrooms. We’re in the early days of a revolution, with a growing number of k-12 learning experiences going online. Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties are all offering some form of online summer school this year.

We need data, real data, on how these programs are working and for whom.

My 16-year-old son finished a world history course yesterday through the state Department of Education’s Georgia Virtual School. The amount of time he devoted to the class — which compressed a year-long course into five weeks — suggested to me that online learning works best for motivated and disciplined students. On average, the class required five to six hours a day because of all the reading. The GVS course drew around 50 students, most from high-performing north Fulton high schools who enrolled to free their regular school schedules for more science.

Strickland said APS used a blended learning model, “which included 75 percent online instruction and 25 percent face-to-face instruction for students enrolled in the summer credit recovery program.” So, the students were not overachievers seeking to take accelerated math in their junior year. These were kids who didn’t pass their classes and needed to attend summer school to get back on track.

So, APS sat them down in front of screens at four high schools with an off-the-shelf program from a company that provides online and blended courses. The computer-based program began with a test that identified where students needed help and adapted the lessons accordingly.

“In a traditional model, students could possibly spend a majority of their summer school hours sitting through lessons on standards they have already mastered, but this adaptive tool ensures that teachers are able to target instruction based upon the specific content for which the student needs additional support,” said Strickland. “Many students attending summer school have not been successful in a traditional model. This nationally recognized technology solution caters to the learning modalities of many students who do not learn best with a traditional stand-and-deliver approach.”

But do students who are unsuccessful in traditional classrooms fare any better with computer-based approaches, which may require even more focus and discipline?

I still don’t think we know. It’s a critical issue as more systems embrace online courses for benefits of scale and costs.

APS described the 16-day summer term as a pilot, and apparently realized after the second week it wasn’t succeeding as students and teachers complained to the media. Asked at the 11th hour to catch up lagging students, one teacher told Channel 2 Action News, “Some students have completed just 10 percent of the work. They’re telling us to do something that is impossible.”

In a bit of artful dodging to the question of the program’s success, Strickland said, “As the world of technology evolves and provides increased opportunities for the individualization of education, APS is committed to embracing innovative practices that ensure more students are successful. With that innovation, however, comes the expectation that there will be a steep learning curve, and that not every implementation will go flawlessly.”

(Whenever I read one of these rhapsodic PR statement from APS, I expect to hear a swelling John Williams score in the background.)

The issue isn’t whether the program or its implementation was flawless. Was it effective?

Here are the other answers APS ought to provide to parents:

Should the pilot have been limited to fewer students? That would have allowed a comparison -- how did the online learners compare to those who had teacher-led instruction?

Will APS follow these high school students to see if they mastered enough content over this summer term to gird them for the regular school year?

Should summer school students -- under the assumption they may know their own strengths and their own capacities -- have been able to choose between online or teacher-led classes?  Some students know online instruction will not work for them because they cannot resist distractions and need a teacher to lean over them, look them in the eye and remind them to stay on task.