Does Presence Equal Progress? Tracking Engagement in Online Schools

Does Presence Equal Progress? Tracking Engagement in Online Schools


Woody Allen once said, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” Unfortunately, Woody’s old line turns out to be a poor standard for measuring academic success.

We all remember classmates who sat in the back of the room, eyes glued to a comic or dog-eared paperback, anything to escape a learning environment that did not—or could not—engage them. They were present in the physical sense, but their focus and commitment were clearly elsewhere.

Today, students have choices when it comes to their education; technology has enabled new school models and a growing number of students are finding success through personalized pathways. But this innovation is at odds with a generations-old notion of what school should look like and it is spurring debate of the merit of online schools. For most, school is a place—whether the proverbial one-room schoolhouse or the sprawling modern suburban campus. The practice of funding public schools and assessing student engagement based on a student’s physical attendance is rooted in this definition and has only reinforced what is an outmoded idea.

Embracing online school requires a new mindset, as well as new criteria for measuring academic success—measures that take into account the nature of teaching and learning online, the types of students online schools serve, and the unique ways in which those students learn.

Many valid questions have been raised about online schools. It’s true that not all of them are serving the best interests of their students. Each of us has seen headlines about an online school providing an unaccredited program that looks like a “diploma mill,” or a completely mismanaged school administration that was not prepared for high student mobility or other realities of online learning.

But these concerns exist as well for traditional brick-and-mortar schools, some of which have failed generations of students. We’ve seen stories about a dropout factory, or a district school where only a small percentage of students are proficient in math or reading (and not getting any better with time or interventions or waivers).

When I was a teacher in a traditional school, I had 20 or more students in my charge at any given time, each with a different learning style, level of engagement, and rate of mastery. If I taught to the middle, I could lose the ends. Today, I lead a company that creates online models for teaching and learning, yet my mission is much the same as it was when I was in the classroom. Student engagement and personalization remain at the heart of my work.

Whenever a new idea threatens to uproot those that are deeply ingrained, there will be many questions. How do you know that a student hasn’t just logged onto their computer and wandered off to play video games? How do you know learning is happening? Where is the accountability?

Some of the answers can be found in the collaborative and adaptive practices utilized by online teachers. From providing in-person opportunities through field trips, drop-in centers, and clubs to working closely with parents and learning coaches, online educators focus their efforts on encouraging engagement, ensuring participation, and inspiring learning.

Teachers interact with students during synchronous learning sessions, and they connect one-on-one through calls, online chats, texts, and interactive whiteboard sessions. They develop learning experiences that incorporate demonstrations of learning and mastery.

Online learning offers educators access to a wealth of learning data to guide their teaching and assessment of student performance. Immediate data visualization is a powerful tool that enables truly personalized interaction and differentiated instruction.

Any attempt to address attendance and engagement, must take into consideration the characteristics of students who attend online schools. Online school works particularly well for students who face unique challenges to traditional academic success. Some are far ahead of their peers academically; others are lagging behind. Both benefit from the self-directed pacing that is a particular advantage of online education. Online schools also serve to provide an uninterrupted education to children who live with illnesses or are otherwise unable to attend a local school. Still others choose online learning because it can present a safe haven from bullying or other social pressures found in traditional schools.

Accountability measures must adapt to and reflect a self-paced, competency-based learning environment. A traditional one-size-fits-all rubric does not translate cleanly with respect to online schools. Why should time-on-task be used as a measure when each student’s rate will almost certainly differ? Why should students be penalized for moving quickly through an assignment? Alternatively, why should they be penalized if they need more time to fully grasp concepts?

Workplace productivity measures may prove more useful to gauging academic engagement and success in the online learning world. Corporate managers use regular online meetings and a host of online tools to monitor the progress of geographically disbursed teams. Work deadlines are set through negotiation, taking into account the unique qualities of the individuals on the team as well as the difficulty of the tasks they face. Productivity and contribution are measured using multiple methods of evaluation. Similar standards can be adapted for online students and teachers.

Online schools are a complement to traditional schools, part of an evolving education landscape. Forward-thinking policy makers are writing accountability and funding legislation that acknowledges it as an innovative way to teach students who, for myriad reasons, are looking for a different way to learn.

It’s my hope that these emerging policies will encourage the further development of promising online and blended learning models. Implemented thoughtfully, they will move us another step closer toward allowing students to have the learning experience that best meets their academic needs.

Steven Guttentag (@stevenguttentag) is co-founder and president of Connections Education

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