The indicators of high quality digital learning | John Watson | 2 Min Read

Many previous blog posts have referenced the difference between emergency remote learning as implemented during the pandemic, compared to well-planned and implemented online and hybrid learning.

As more and more districts are starting their own online and hybrid schools, however, they are asking — what exactly is high quality online learning? What does it look like?

This is a good question and perhaps not as easily answered as one might expect, because so many different forms of online and hybrid learning exist. Case studies in our Digital Learning Snapshots show that online programs vary, and the suggestions in our guides are somewhat general. But some common, key indicators do exist. They include:

  • An active role for teachers, whether they are online, f2f in a hybrid school, or both. This is the easiest indicator conceptually, because in 20+ years of studying the U.S. K-12 online learning field, we have found that literally every successful school or program places a premium on teachers. (This shouldn’t be a surprise because it applies to all physical schools as well.)
  • “A premium on teachers” manifests as strong hiring practices, professional development, and ongoing teacher support. Professional development is combined with ongoing support that is embedded and offered consistently throughout the year.
  • Teacher-student and student-student interaction in courses.
  • Extensive student support that relies on one or more professionals who are familiar with the student’s interests —academic and otherwise — and challenges to be overcome.
  • Consistent communications with families, for younger students in particular.
  • Content that is acquired or developed that is well organized, provides opportunities for a variety of ways for students to interact with it, is accessible, and aligns to quality standards such as the National Standards for Quality Online Learning.
  • A focus on equity and access, to ensure that all students are well served by the online/hybrid opportunity. Devices and Internet access are most often the focus of access and equity in online schools and programs, but access should extend to ensuring that special populations of students have the supports they need, and the focus on equity should extend to content and instruction.

Established online and hybrid schools also have indicators of success based on outcomes. As digital learning programs often serve students who are highly mobile, and/or arrive at the school behind on credit accumulation, measures such as test scores on state assessments, and graduation rates, may or may not describe outcomes accurately.

For example, researchers at Stride (formerly K12 Inc.) used NWEA MAP data and methodologies to determine that students at Stride schools who participated in MAP “did not experience the same level of learning loss as their peers” in physical schools, and “were more likely to maintain or grow academically than to slide.” Florida Virtual School publishes extensive parent and student survey results, along with other data. These are just two examples from among Digital Learning Collaborative members, among many others.

This list of ideas and indicators is not exhaustive! We would love to hear from our readers to add some elements that they consider “key indicators,” to continue this conversation as your ability to track and analyze these indicators in online schools and programs will affect everything from the success of your current students to the future growth and capabilities of your school or program.

Republished from John’s Digital Learning Collaborative blog post dated August 4, 2021.

John Watson

As Evergreen’s founder and primary researcher, John Watson is responsible for conducting, writing, and presenting research as well as providing testimony on digital learning matters to state boards of education, legislatures, and charter school commissions. He has extensive knowledge and experience based on his two decades working in online learning and education technology. This background has afforded him a wide-reaching network across the spectrum of education professionals, policymakers, and subject matter experts as well as the ability to provide insightful, dimensional analysis and recommendations. After earning his MBA and a MS in natural resource policy at the University of Michigan, John went to work for one of the first Learning Management System companies, eCollege, in early 1998. He launched eCollege’s K-12 division, called eClassroom, and managed eClassroom’s research and business development. This experience was the springboard for John’s independent consulting in environmental policy and education which evolved into what Evergreen Education Group is today. John is deeply moved by stories of students and teachers who have been positively impacted by technology in classrooms, online courses, and innovative schools. He strives to tell these stories accurately and to clearly explain the challenges inherent with digital learning in order to bring an honest, balanced perspective to Evergreen’s insight and recommendations. His ability to approach research and relationships with consideration for bias and hierarchy makes him a natural connector between information and people. John has presented and led panel discussions at numerous conferences and convenings. In addition to his research for Evergreen, John writes regularly about various issues related to digital learning and is a contributing author of the Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning. His and Evergreen’s work has been cited in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Education Week, and eSchool News, and he has also appeared on NBC Nightly News.

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