After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought

By TAMAR LEWIN, New York Times, December 10, 2013

Two years after a Stanford professor drew 160,000 students from around the globe to a free online course on artificial intelligence, starting what was widely viewed as a revolution in higher education, early results for such large-scale courses are disappointing, forcing a rethinking of how college instruction can best use the Internet.

A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed the courses.

Much of the hope — and hype — surrounding MOOCs has focused on the promise of courses for students in poor countries with little access to higher education. But a separate survey from the University of Pennsylvania released last month found that about 80 percent of those taking the university’s MOOCs had already earned a degree of some kind.

And perhaps the most publicized MOOC experiment, at San Jose State University, has turned into a flop. It was a partnership announced with great fanfare at a January news conference featuring Gov. Jerry Brown of California, a strong backer of online education. San Jose State and Udacity, a Silicon Valley company co-founded by a Stanford artificial-intelligence professor, Sebastian Thrun, would work together to offer three low-cost online introductory courses for college credit.

Mr. Thrun, who had been unhappy with the low completion rates in free MOOCs, hoped to increase them by hiring online mentors to help students stick with the classes. And the university, in the heart of Silicon Valley, hoped to show its leadership in online learning, and to reach more students.

But the pilot classes, of about 100 people each, failed. Despite access to the Udacity mentors, the online students last spring — including many from a charter high school in Oakland — did worse than those who took the classes on campus. In the algebra class, fewer than a quarter of the students — and only 12 percent of the high school students — earned a passing grade. …

read more, including links, at New York Times

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ELC Continues to Call for Moratorium on New Cyber Charter Schools

excerpt from Education Law Center of Pennsylvania statementon cyber charter schools, 11/14/13, pp. 3-4 (see source for footnotes)

…In our testimony last year, we gave four reasons why expanding cyber charter schools was an inefficient and unaccountable use of tax dollars. A year later all four of those reasons are even more compelling. First, we explained that it was wasteful to continue to allow cyber charter expansion in the face of evidence of the high turnover rate of students who leave their public schools to enter a cyber charter school, only to return a year later, having lost a year of academic growth. The importance of school stability has been well documented. Unfortunately, self-reported data found in charter school annual reports provide conclusive evidence that students in cyber charters schools withdraw from those schools at much higher rates than their peers in brick and mortar schools. During the 2011-2012 school year, 27% of the students in the five cyber charter for which data is available withdrew from those schools before the end of the school year. That number is striking all on its own, but to put that into perspective, we compared the rates for these five cyber charters to the 87 brick and mortar charter school in Pennsylvania that reported this data for the 2011-12 school year. The cyber charter withdrawal rate of 27% is three times the rate of 9% in brick and mortar charter schools.5

It is true that increasing numbers of parents, lured by ubiquitous advertisements making false promises, keep gambling on cyber charters. But as the data shows, after experiencing the poor quality of instruction, they flee at record numbers. Unfortunately, for many it is not before their students lose a year of education and taxpayers foot the bill for remediation back in traditional public schools.

Second, we explained that it was irresponsible and inefficient to expand cyber schools when there has been widespread acknowledgement that the current cyber charter funding formula is fundamentally flawed.6

Today that view is even more broadly accepted, yet we are still operating under the same funding formula. In addition, the financial impact on school districts is even more widespread. The School District of Philadelphia had over a $300 million budget deficit, much of which can be attributed to increasing charter school payments, including cyber charter schools. Dozens of school districts in both rural and suburban communities are in similar financial distress. Projections are for this financial crisis to continue into the foreseeable future. Adding additional inefficient cyber charters at this time, would further harm traditional public schools, and thus violate the state constitutional mandate to maintain and support the thorough and efficient system of public education.

Third, we explained that it was inefficient and wrong for taxpayers to continue to pay for a system of cyber charter schools which permits profiteering and personal gain on the backs of Pennsylvania taxpayers.7 Since then our state has seen major indictments of the leadership of both our two largest cyber charter operators, including the founder of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and the founder and former head of the Agora Cyber Charter.8

As taxpayers continue to dig out of the massive waste and on-going legal fees still being paid with public funds, it is all too vividly clear that, one year later, these problems have not been resolved. Allowing six more schools to enter this educational climate will only exacerbate the problem. …

read the full report, with charts and footnotes, at Education Law Center of Pennsylvania statement on cyber charter schools

RFA Releases Issue Brief on Cyber Charter Schools

Research For Action, November 2013

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is currently considering applications that could expand the number of cyber charter schools statewide by 40 percent. In the General Assembly, at least 12 proposals are pending on cyber charter authorization, funding or oversight.

To inform these discussions, RFA used the state’s recently-issued School Performance Profile (SPP) scores to examine the performance of 11 cyber charter schools for which complete data are available. We compared these scores to all public schools statewide (both traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charters) and looked at student mobility rates using enrollment and demographic data from the five cyber charters with publicly-available data.

Our analysis found that the performance of the cyber charter sector lags behind both traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charters in SPP scores. Additionally, mobility rates of cyber charter students are significantly higher than for brick-and-mortar charters in almost all cases.

While the small sample sizes for schools with complete data limit the reach of our analysis, this is an important step in understanding a fast-growing sector and the implications for education policy and practice in the Commonwealth.

Click here to read the full brief.

Chart from the report:
PA school performance profiles