These are my notes from Sabine Lewis’ presentation, “How to Make Your High School Students Fail Online Courses” at the November 9, 2011 Oklahoma Distance Learning Association (ODLA) fall conference. MY THOUGHTS ARE IN ALL CAPS.

I’ve been teaching German online through OSU for 17 years

Most of the literature you see about online courses is about adults, not kids
– there are LOTS of differences between kids and adults in all contexts, including the online environment
– many of the studies about online learning for adults don’t apply well to kids

Online learning has lots of high expectations
– lots of people proclaiming ‘revolution’ for online learning
– “revolutionary transformation” language

Picciano and Seaman’s (2009) estimate of 1,030,000 K-12 students enrolled in 2007-2008, up 47% from 2004-2005
– that doesn’t jive with my practical experiences, however
– we started with satellite broadcasts: lots of enthusiasm, enrollments
– then after a few years enrollments dropped off / went down

1922: Thomas Edison said the motion picture will revolutionize the educational system, will replace textbooks
– similar things were said about radio and TV

Most research done for K12 learners show “no significant difference in student achievement” using technology and ‘traditional classroom instruction’
– dropping enrollment and use has followed each kind of technology use
– there is a lack of research into the causes of that failure

will online learning follow this pattern?
– how can we prevent it?

Picciano and Seaman’s 2009 estimate was an estimate from a survey of school districts with 66,000 students in OL courses, a response rate of 8.67%
– was the sample self-selected?

Anecdotal evidence from German Online:
– OL works very well at some schools, not at others
– a lot of students with A’s, lot of F’s too
– F’s mostly due to missing work
– uneven distribution of grades between schools
– changing only when the facilitator changed


In 1 case with lots of student failures, we sent someone to the school to find out what was going on
– all the facilitator was doing was printing out handouts for students and having them work independently

I wanted to find out why OL is working well at some schools and not well at others
– 3 main factors that affect online learning success: Course, Student, and School

Course factors
– course design
– subject
– instructor

– motivation
– maturity
– locus of control (self-discipline)

– technology
– facilitator: is there a one, what do they do / roles?
– time/place: is there a space set aside for OL?

German Online Program (our program: same course, same instructor, same course design- so these variables were controlled in my study)
– spring semester 2011
– 926 students at 353 schools in 41 states
– Canada, Costa Rica, German, Hungary, Romania, Switzerland

247 (70%) high schools
18% home schooled
6% middle schools

1st thing I looked at: Student Grades
– grades do not have a normal distribution
– distribution is “biomodal curvilinear
– a lot of A’s and F’s, not many in the middle

German online: bimodal curvilinear distribution of grades

This grade distribution was also found research by 5 year longitudinal study of K12 online learning by David Wiley et al. (2010) and Zucker & Kozma (2003)
– they didn’t explain this dynamic in their research

I examined failing grades
– of 222 F’s, 216 were due to missing quizzes and assignments

Individual schools: most skewed towards either A’s or F’s, none with normal distributions
– this supports the argument of NOT looking at the third factor, the student
– if you are looking at people, the statistical assumption is you’ll have a “normal curve” in the population

So then I started looking at school implementations, through 2 short surveys: 1 to school administrators, another to facilitators
— Administrator survey had 23% respondents: 59 of 255
— there were just 5 questions:
– is there a place and time for online class: 50 yes, 9 no
– local facilitator provided? 51 yes, 8 no: 20 full time, 15 part time
– is there a selection for online students (GPA minimums, other selection process): 37 no, 22 yes
– reason for using OL? – most said expand the curriculum, individual student needs, too few students to hire a teacher
– who is paying? 64% district, 19% parents, 15% state, 9% school

In our case we charge a fee for our German Online course
– North Carolina Virtual School is 1 place we provide instruction for, they used to pay 100% but now they cost-share with districts

Facilitator survey (164 of 255 responded: 64%)
– how much time do you spend facilitating: 37% were doing it as an add-on to current responsibilities, 23% were full time, 20% were part time
– duties? 51% keep students on track daily, 40% check student grades 1-2 times per week, 35% proctoring tests 1-2 times per week, seldom or never keeping students on track, 38% check student participation in tutoring sessions, 49% contact instructors, 45% contact parents


more facilitator survey responses:
– what kinds of training did your receive? 29% some basic, 27% said NONE, 22% training sessions/workshops

That number of 27% receiving NO instruction is really worrisome to me
– facilitating an online course is VERY different than teaching a traditional course: content many be unfamiliar to the facilitator, technology procedures and tools may also be unfamiliar

more facilitator survey responses:
– problems with technology? 49% none, 18% some, (more…. all I could get)

Data Analysis
– find connection between student achievement (grades) and school implementation factors: ANOVA, independent T-test
– result: no significance

This result was very disappointing to me, but then I remembered the odd bimodal curvilinear distribution
– it appears the grade distribution is NOT a normal curve, so the standard tests like ANOVA can’t work if that assumption is false

Our average class size now is 2.x (we have just 1 or 2 students in most of our classes at individual sites)

So I grouped my data, focusing on student grades at high scoring schools
– then looking at just low-scoring schools
– limited in both cases to schools with 3 students or more

So then I compared the implementation details between those two different groups
– some things were not different: most had time and place set aside, most had a local teacher as facilitator, most facilitators were keeping students on track, checking student progress regularly, didn’t have selection criteria for OL, most used OL as a last resort: stop-gap measure when traditional schools were not working

High performing school differences:
– full time facilitators rather than add-on
– more extensive training for facilitators
– reported less problems with technology: facilitators were apparently more tech-saavy
– more contact with other facilitators (collaboration with peers, could exchange experiences)
– tutoring sessions: facilitator made/initiatied contact themselves, present during sessions

So going back to our original question: How can you make your online high school students fail?
– don’t do these things (above) that high performing schools OL are doing

Our specific program needs to look more at training
– we don’t do much with teacher training now with online learning
– we need to train teachers how to facilitate OL well
– teachers need to become more comfortable with the technology too
– we are looking to establish a discussion board for facilitators to login and ask questions

Hidrances to these things happening
– online is often seen as a cost-saving measure
– not much research with kids, it’s mostly with adults, there is not much data to make ‘data-based’ decision
– inflated expectations, ignoring history, field by for-profit programs
– at LEAST facilitators need to be part time AND paid for their work

I looked for 3 years and read a LOT of articles, there is really NOT much research out there now on kids OL

Administrators are asked by NCLB and RTTT to make data-based decisions, but how can they do that when there isn’t data “out there?”

Companies are making billions of dollars now in promoting K-12 online learning
– I’ve gone to NACOL’s conference for several years
– you can tell the presence and push of the companies / corporations: sponsoring lunches for 5000 teachers at a time
– it’s being pushed for all the wrong reasons, often it’s not done right

K12 online learning will only take off if these elements like local support are provided

‘blended learning’ is another pet peeve of mine
– people have noticed you DO need a teacher!
– in higher ed ‘blended learning’ is a valid concept
– in public school that is not the case like it is at the university level

Email: sabine [dot] lewis [at]

I love the way online learning lets me focus on teaching and not have to deal with the disciplinary issues
– it’s heartbreaking to see students failing, however, in our online courses
– I’ve thought of writing some articles about this

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2 Responses to How to Make Your High School Students Fail Online Courses

  1. Wolfpack181 says:

    Love the article.  It matches what I have seen with online v classroom.  The learning environment is so different. I agree we need more training for facilitators.  I appreciate knowing that the findings here supported the need for an involved, connected facilitator. My experience has shown that highly social extroverts hate online learning in a course section.  Favorite phrase in this article: bimodal curvilinear 🙂

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