Online and Blended Learning Policies in K-12 Education: The Case of Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP)

Nicholas M. Lind

December 14, 2013

Policy Analysis written for course EDU413 – Contemporary Issues in Educational Policy at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester

 

Online and Blended Learning Policies in K-12 Education:

The Case of Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP)

Policy Overview

Introduction

            According to some educators, online and blended learning initiatives currently taking place in K-12 schools across the country offer a prospective glimpse into an inevitable future of learning.  As the availability of technological resources in districts continues to grow – from internet connectivity and computer access to smart phones and tablet apps – students increasingly possess the opportunity to shift their education to new digital technologies which empower them with revolutionary learning capabilities.

Online and blended learning programs afford educators, learners, citizens, and policymakers alike with various luxuries.  These incentives have driven the online and blended learning movement toward new educational paradigms.  To be sure, as with many new educational policies, these transitions have been viewed unfavorably by some in the educational community and have certainly involved costs for stakeholders to consider.  These new benefits and concerns will be reviewed below, specifically focusing on Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP) as an educational policy case study.

Several observations form the basis of this analysis.  Although Florida’s Virtual School continues to be recognized as a leading K-12 online learning institution, similar initiatives in Arizona, Minnesota, and Utah are moving in similar paths (Watson et. al., 2013).  Due to the recent development and subsequently limited supply of literature on these programs, this review will concentrate on the learning scene in Utah while drawing from broader literature on the topic.

Second, rather than placing these initiatives within the matrices of Race to the Top, Common Core, and teacher evaluation policies taking shape across the country, the scope of this analysis is limited to the development of online and blended programs independent of alternative educational policies.  Similarly, although the Statewide Online Education Program stems from a school choice approach of educational reform, the synthesizing of seminal research on school choice will not be pursued by this analysis.  Instead, this report will investigate the policy process for SOEP in Utah and will describe the design and goals of the program according to the academic literature on online and blended learning programs.  To be sure, school choice – and in SOEP’s case course choice – will perhaps have significant effects both on student achievement and on standing educational institutions in Utah, especially when compounded by other state and federal policies.  But these outcomes will be more recognizable and measurable in the longer term, once SOEP has been fully implemented.

Defining Digital Learning Terms

Before proceeding, it is appropriate to define what constitutes “online” and “blended” learning programs.  The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), the leading policy organization devoted to blended and online learning opportunities, defines these terms in the following ways:

“Blended learning (also hybrid learning): Learning that is facilitated by the effective combination of different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning, and is based on transparent communication amongst all parties involved with a course” (Wicks, 2010, p. 48).

“Online learning (also cyber learning, elearning, and virtual learning): Education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily over the Internet; online learning is a form of distance learning.  The term does not include printer-based correspondence education, broadcast television, or radio, videocassettes, and stand-alone educational software programs that do not have a significant internet-based instructional component” (Wicks, 2010, p.48).

Whereas blended learning programs deliver instruction within traditional brick-and-mortar settings and supplement with internet-based activities and assignments, online programs deliver the entirety of the learning process digitally.  And while both models depend highly on strong communication between teachers and students, instructors of blended courses effectively tailor the balance between the amount of time spent in traditional settings with time spent online specifically according to the needs of their students.  Although their teaching style may inform the initial balance between in-class and online activities, blended programs allow teachers to respond to their students’ progress and provide in-class support as necessary (Digital Learning Now!, 2010).

Internet-based modes of learning are often delivered through a Learning Management System.  Wicks (2010) describes these systems as software programs that provide a platform to create, edit, share, communicate, and assess course content.  Instructors can upload course materials onto the platform for students to access, or can simply provide links to media available on the internet.  Students can communicate with each other via these systems and often submit assignments for instructors to review.  In most cases, students are able to log on to these systems using a username and password, which allows them to access the course materials from anywhere with internet access.

Policy Problem & Issue Definition

Benefits of Online & Blended Learning

Online and blended learning models are promoted essentially for their potential to increase equitable access to high-quality educational services.  This principle transcends various dimensions of educational policymaking including: challenging the norms of traditional teaching and learning, adapting the curricular and technical structures of education, and providing constituents – both voters and learners – with equitable and democratic schools.

Challenging traditional teaching and learning. Anthony Picciano, Professor at the Graduate Center and Hunter College, CUNY, has served as principle investigator on multiple analyses of online and blended learning programs nationwide.  Picciano et. al (2011b) found that, “high schools in Illinois and nationally use a number of external providers rather than develop[ing] courses in house” (p.1).  This separation of the design of curriculum from the delivery of instruction aims to ensure high-quality learning materials for all students, but to be sure depends entirely on the quality of coursework a third party organization provides.  Ideally, only high-quality course providers would be authorized by state departments of education to supply materials.  But this is not always the case, as is evident from recent controversy and outcries in New York regarding low quality Common Core modules widely purchased by school districts.

Online learning programs allow students to access certified teachers delivering subjects who wouldn’t be available for face-to-face instruction (Picciano et. al. 2011b). Personally speaking, I graduated from a rural high school that didn’t offer any Advanced Placement courses and only offered Spanish as a foreign language.  I would have kindly greeted any opportunity for more diverse course offerings.  Consequently, online programs provide teachers with career options to reach more students in more productive ways.  Highly effective teachers can be reached across geographic areas, perhaps even facilitating online courses from their own homes (Lips, 2010).  Downes (2004) also suggests that online and blended programs offer students an opportunity to learn and communicate using blogs, which encourage formative writing exercises and personalize writing in a way that directly increases its relevance to students.

These new programs are also uniquely positioned to meet the needs of diverse groups of learners.  Muller (2009) explains how state-level virtual K-12 public school programs have developed ways to offer accommodations, assistive technology, and related services to students with disabilities according to their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).  Muller also notes that at-risk students who are prone to dropout, incarcerated students, students who are homebound, and migrant youth are all empowered by online learning opportunities (p. 3).  While these programs require innovative solutions, states are continually expanding online and blended opportunities in ways to benefit diverse learners.

            Adapting curricular and technical structures. Online learning programs introduce diverse opportunities for schools and students.  Picciano et. al. (2011a) noted that, “offering courses not otherwise available [such as]…Advanced Placement or college-level courses,” attracted school administrators to explore online and blended models (p. 128).  The flexible format of online coursework also decreased scheduling conflicts for students seeking to meet graduation requirements.  Students who previously failed a course could retake it through an online program to receive credit promptly rather than waiting an entire year for the course to be offered again.  Similarly, courses that would previously have been overscheduled – inappropriately increasing the student-faculty ratio beyond best-practices for effective class sizes – now could be offered through online or blended programs in order to accommodate schools with, “growing populations and limited space” (Picciano et. al., 2011a, p.129).

            Providing democratic education.  Providing freedom to students who seek to choose specific courses is an important driver of online and blended programs.  Picciano et. al. (2011a) explained that in addition to offering additional courses, online and blended programs individualize educational services to best-fit the needs of students.  For example, some district administrators reported that research pointing to the pedagogical strength of online programs as well as testimonies of students’ preference of online coursework played a role in developing programs within their schools.  Lips (2010) writes that instead of grouping students according to their age, online learning can group them by achievement level or learning style.  Additionally, students can learn at their own pace, providing advanced students with an infrastructure to accelerate ahead and allowing struggling students to receive ample support in order to reach total proficiency at their own pace rather than learn “enough” to pass a course while still lacking proficiency.

iNACOL (2009) notes that quality mathematics and science teachers, who are critical to the nation’s future economic competitiveness, are in short supply in many districts.  Online programs can eliminate the geographical discrepancies currently experienced across the country.  They also point out that, “online college prep, Advanced Placement, credit recovery, and dropout prevention programs ensure that more American students are ready for college” (p. 1).  These opportunities can decrease the cost of college for students by minimizing remedial coursework necessary in their first several semesters or by covering coursework requirements altogether.  Furthermore, research has shown that online and blended learning environments, “can produce significant cost savings for states and districts” (Bailey et. al., 2013c)

These programs additionally have more practical benefits.  Online courses provide hands-on training using technology and computers, widely perceived as an essential twenty-first century literacy skill (iNACOL, 2009).  Also, if local colleges are authorized as course providers, students may build linkages in a way that encourages future college attendance (Picciano et. al., 2011a).  Students who take courses online within a flexible time frame can now use their time within traditional school settings – roughly speaking, between 7am and 4 pm – in ways that better-fit their personal interests.  Since they’re taking a required science course online, perhaps their schedule allows them to take an elective arts or music course in school or perhaps they use their new flexible time to join an organization like student council or join a new sport (Lips, 2010).

Finally, administrators noted that the financial benefits to offering blended and online courses – such as offering credit recovery opportunities through an online program rather than offering a whole course for a few students – enticed them to begin programs.  In this way, online and blended programs benefit student achievement, but also school efficiency and taxpayers’ return on investment.

Barriers to Online and Blended Learning

In addition to implementation challenges that will be addressed later on in this report, there are several factors that hinder the development of online and blended learning programs.  Picciano et. al. (2011a) found that a small number of districts hesitated to introduce blended learning programs both due to “restrictive federal, state, or local laws or policies” (p. 130).  Other administrators cited a lack of human capital in terms of technological and online teaching pedagogical skills.  Without federal or statewide grant programs covering the initial costs of preparing for online and blended courses, districts are short on the capabilities required to implement online programs.

Inadequate funding – both for teacher professional development and to purchase technological infrastructure – compounded with uncertainty regarding the sustainability of programs financed according to student attendance, both in terms of district contributions as well as the ambiguous resulting effects an online program would cause on the supply and demand of teacher labor markets.  Nevertheless, online and blended learning programs have increasingly been developed throughout the country, as demonstrated by reviewing annual editions of Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Blended Learning, a seminal review of online and blended programs released annually since 2003.

Policy Design & Formulation

Background: Online and Blended Learning in Utah

            The 2013 Keeping Pace report identifies Utah as a national leader of online and blended learning (Watson et. al., 2013 see also Parker, 2013, April 2).  According to Keeping Pace, Utah offers student choice at both a school and course level through four fully online charter schools, a fully online public Utah Electronic High School, and through the newly developed  Statewide Online Education Program. Keeping Pace identifies Utah’s efforts as, “among the first and best-known course choice programs in the country” (p. 150).  Despite this attention, Utah’s SOEP remains small.  Total enrollment for the 2012-2013 school year served 1,279 course enrollments to only 664 unique students.  However, the Electronic High School served 10,308 course enrollments in the same period, rendering the public school’s course choice program significantly more popular (Watson et. al, 2013).

Setting the Agenda: Formulating Policy in Utah

            Given Utah’s existing access to online and blended courses, the process of developing the SOEP aimed to expand opportunities beyond those offered by traditional public institutions.  Salt Lake Tribune journalists Lisa Schencker and Ray Parker chronicled the SOEP’s journey through the state legislature, with various contributions from writers at The Deseret News, and The Daily Herald offering alternative perspectives.

Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson, a Republican representing the Draper district, sponsored the original bill in the state legislature to create the SOEP.  Stephenson argued to other senators, “I urge you to set our children free.  Allow them to take more online courses and serve their needs rather than serving the needs of institutions” (Schencker, 2011, February 18).  By creating an infrastructure for authorizing private institutions to deliver courses, Stephenson’s bill expanded student choice beyond public institutions, a controversial policy in education circles and public education advocates.

An initial vote failed 13-10-6 to send the bill to the Utah House of Representatives.  But although some opponents were vocally opposed to the bill, labeling it as a “school voucher bill,” Democratic Senator Karen Morgan cautioned only against the cost of the proposal and offered that, “maybe this is something we shouldn’t do this year” (Schencker, 2011, March 6).  Optimistic editorials were soon published in The Deseret News, a major daily paper based in Salt Lake City, and Stephenson revised the bill and redoubled awareness of the program’s perceived benefits prior to introducing it again for a vote (see Horn, 2011, March 2; Daw, 2011, July 24; and Odell, 2012, June 16).  A later vote passed the Senate 17-12-0, moved on to the House where it passed 48-27-0, and was signed by the Governor on March 30, 2011 (S.B. 65, 2011).  Stephenson amended S.B. 65 to expand the regulations of the SOEP in Senate Bill 178, which easily passed through the state legislature and was signed by the Governor on March 20, 2012 (S.B. 178, 2012).

Opponents of the bill feared the unintended consequences of SOEP.  Stakeholders were concerned with harming public school systems by transferring public funds to private organizations, the logistical challenges of providing a location to supervise students completing online coursework during their normal hours at brick-and-mortar schools, and the implications for public schools when an influx of students decide to drop courses in September in favor of alternative online courses on school finance, which typically is prepared months in advance (Farmer, 2011, June 15).

Tami Pyfer, a representative of District 1 on the Utah State Board of Education and Clinical Instructor of Special Education and Rehabilitation at Utah State University, speaking prior to the passage of S.B. 178, noted that S.B. 65 actually limited student choice by capping the number of courses students may take.  For every course students enrolled for through SOEP, they would have to drop a course at their traditional school (Pyfer, 2011, September 23).  Senator Stephenson noted that the provision was included in order to manage the costs of SOEP, but adapted it in S.B. 178 to allow the number of courses students may take to gradually increase over the next several years (S.B. 178, 2012).

S.B. 178 also differentiated the cost of each course a student takes.  Whereas districts initially would credit online course providers with $727 per course, S.B. 178 initially set the price of courses between $400 to $700 depending on the type of class, but Stephenson compromised to allow districts to negotiate the costs of each course with authorized online providers in order to solidify support to pass the bill (see Schencker, 2012, February 22 and Schencker, 2012, March 2).

Interestingly, a bill originating in the Utah House called for the establishment of a state-wide voucher program for students.  Under House Bill 123, a pilot program would be established to fund “savings accounts” for students to use toward their education on a course-choice level at authorized public, charter, private, and online institutions.  The bill’s sponsor, Representative John Dougall, supported the measure in terms of transparency of funds spent on education, but the bill failed to clear the House, losing a vote 26-46 (Hesterman, 2012, March 6).

Although in-depth descriptions of the policy process are largely limited to press reporting and floor speeches, the ultimate format of the SOEP in its current existence is more straightforward.

Summary: The Statewide Online Education Program

            Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program complements the wide array of online learning policies already established in the state, as referenced above.  S.B. 65, the bill that initially created the system and S.B. 178, which slightly amended the program, established an infrastructure for educational agencies authorized by the Utah Board of Education to deliver online courses to students across the state (S.B. 65, 2011; and S.B. 178, 2012).  Students may choose individual courses to take through SOEP, and those courses replace requirements they would otherwise complete within their traditional school district (Watson et. al., 2013).  Provider agencies may be programs created by public LEAs or may be provided by outside third parties, as long as the agency is approved by the LEA (S.B. 65, 2011; and S.B. 178, 2012).  Students may currently only enroll for a maximum of two credits per year through SOEP – unless they elect to pay out-of-pocket for courses – but that figure increases annually over the next five years and students (Murin, 2011).

The SOEP is provided an annual appropriation of $250,000 from the Utah State Legislature to sustain the infrastructure and support staff.  Funding typically allocated to students’ local education agency (LEA) through local tax dollars follows them to the provider of any online courses they take through SOEP.  The costs of each course are between $400 and $700, with the exact price negotiated between the traditional school district and the authorized providing agency.

Provider agencies receive half of the funding when students enroll in the course and receive the balance when students successfully complete the course.  There are specific stipulations regarding the amount of time students may take to complete a course. Agencies receive only 80% of the total negotiated price if students fail to complete the coursework within an agreed upon time frame.  This deadline is typically congruent with traditional class schedules of roughly nine months for a full-year, one-credit course, and four months for a one-semester, half-credit course (Watson et. al, 2013).

Policy Effects

            It is too early to generalize the effects of Utah’s SOEP to form broader conclusions regarding statewide course choice programs.  Indeed, measuring student outcomes can arguably only produce reliable comparisons once the program is fully implemented, which won’t be for several years.  Even then, researchers and policymakers will likely find themselves arguing the classic nature versus nurture debate of educational choice: Does course and/or school choice increase student achievement or are the students who choose naturally better-equipped to achieve higher?  An expansive 2010 meta-analysis completed by the Department of Education found that online learning, particularly blended learning, has statistically significant positive effects on student achievement, but this review did not include the element of course choice (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).  Barbour (2010) similarly notes that,

“while online learning may allow for educational improvements such as high levels of learner motivation, high quality learning opportunities or improvement in student outcomes, it certainly did not guarantee any of these potential benefits would be realized” (p. 7).

These questions and more can’t be answered until the nuanced details of SOEP and other online learning policies in Utah are fully implemented and subsequently analyzed from an academic perspective, as the current literature on Utah is limited to private institutions and local newspaper testimonies.  Still, there are a number of evident preliminary outcomes that future studies might consider.

            Utah has set a precedent for public choice on a course level.  By offering these courses entirely with public tax dollars, no additional cost is accrued to students.  This allows students to make individual course choices which in turn pressures schools to compete on a lower level for students.  Whereas traditional choice models pushed schools to be more attractive as a whole to students, Utah’s SOEP course choice program pressures schools and outside agencies to offer individual courses that entice student interest.  The effects of this shift on student achievement, teacher labor markets, and the financial sustainability of public schools have yet to be realized.

As previously mentioned above, Utah’s SOEP program empowers students with diverse course offerings that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them in their traditional brick-and-mortar schools.  Teachers working in high-need fields, offering foreign languages, college preparation courses, or Advanced Placement courses can now provide geographic equity to students in Utah.  For example, Brigham Young University offers courses for college credit through the BYU Independent Study Program, which can be transferred from high schools to cover coursework at any college accredited by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools (Watson et. al., 2013).  Similarly, The Juilliard School began offering music education courses to students through the SOEP, expanding world class instruction to rural residents in Utah free of charge (Parker, 2013, March 19).  This confirms Picciano’s suggestion that students will form bonds with higher education institutions (2011a).  Whether these relationships transition into increased college attendance is also yet to be measured.

Researchers have also pointed out the potential for online learning to allow traditional schools to transition away from cohort-based organization and instead focus on competency education.  Bailey et. al. (2013a) argues that the traditional “factory model” of education limits students in two fundamental ways: “It holds back students who could be excelling,” and “it moves on students who aren’t ready” (p. 125).  Under competency education models, students advance upon subject mastery rather than on proficiency and seat time.  Their achievement is based on “explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students” (p. 128).  Assessments are used as a tool to diagnose rather learning challenges and students receive “timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs” (p. 128).

Researchers point out that competency education does not rely on online learning, but may be easily facilitated through online and blended programs that already allow students to advance as they reach mastery, such as Utah’s SOEP program.  Patrick and Sturgis (2013) importantly note that the terminology associated with competency education varies and has been referred to as “proficiency-based education,” “standards-based education,” and “mastery-education” (p. 5).  Regardless of its terminology, researchers have acknowledged the potential for online and blended learning programs to offer evolutionary changes to traditional education paradigms.

Implementation Issues

The implementation process for Utah’s SOEP remains in progress.  With the amount of credits students may enroll in increasing annually, a more holistic perspective of the program’s implementation must also be analyzed by future researchers.  But much like the effects of SOEP, there are several early points worth noting regarding SOEP’s implementation as well as the implementation of similar online and blended learning programs noted by researchers thus far.

The role of Senator Stephenson in adapting the program to accommodate the concerns of fellow legislators, educators, and community stakeholders shouldn’t be overlooked.  Datnow and Park (2009) note that within the co-construction model of policy implementation, stakeholders and policymakers actively work to design and implement educational policies in ways that benefit specific school environments.  In this way, Stephenson’s response to criticism, and resulting sponsorship of S.B. 178, provided stakeholders with an opportunity to contribute to the policy in a way that would benefit its implementation and ultimately to support educational agencies to deliver high student outcomes.

Muller (2009) offers several general implementation challenges associated with online and blended programs.  In addition to adopting a co-construction mindset during the design and implementation stage of policymaking, educators and policymakers must educate parents about online education and the market of choices available to students.  Also, as new technologies arise – including learning management systems, computer software, and internet-based programs – both educators and policymakers must remain well-informed in order to provide the most effective learning opportunities to students.  Muller also notes that funding issues can hamper implementation, but the sustainability of Utah’s SOEP has yet to be systemically analyzed.

Bailey et. al. (2013d) explains that schools can take several steps toward implementing blended learning including: placing computers in classrooms, delivering a digital curriculum, experiment with flipped classroom strategies, increase access to computer labs and tablet devices.  But importantly, although “these strategies may be beneficial…if they do not change instructional practices, schedules, relationships, and resource allocations, they are not considered blended learning (p. 19).  Bailey et. al. (2013d) also include a set of practices to assist schools in transitioning from some of the strategies mentioned above to fully online or blended environments, often based on competency education.

Including successful testimonies from around the country, Bailey et. al. (2013d) include a variety of extensive frameworks for schools to adapt.  Each plan includes strategies which address challenges made to a school’s infrastructure, broadband capabilities, network equipment and management, electrical power supply, facilities management, and hardware and software acquisition.  Furthermore, schools must address challenges posed by professional development demands as well as the existing school culture, which in some cases can hinder policy implementation.  Bailey’s implementation guide provides an in-depth primer on issues schools face when implementing online programs, including several ways schools can overcome these challenges.  The insights provided by the guide are highly recommended for policymakers, researchers, and educational leaders alike.

Policy Recommendations

As legislated by S.B 65 and S.B 178, Utah should continually reflect on the SOEP implementation process and make changes as necessary to address financial and academic concerns that may arise (S.B. 65, 2011; and S.B. 178, 2012).  Researchers and educators must also analyze the SOEP and reflect on its effectiveness for student achievement, as well as its financial sustainability, and its impact on the traditional public school system.

Policymakers should introduce online and blended learning policies which support the transition to competency education.  Under these models, students are more likely to achieve mastery of subjects rather than advance merely as a product of their seat time.  Policies that adopt a co-construction approach to implementation and provide schools with flexibility to fit their students’ needs are most likely to deliver those outcomes (iNACOL, 2012).

Providing incentives, especially state and federal grant programs to districts that adopt online and blended learning models will catalyze the transition.  iNACOL (2012) suggests these incentives are translated to the course level, allowing students the optimal choice.  Funding structures that simply transfer funding from one educational entity to another allow this transition to be more financially viable, although future studies must analyze the long-term sustainability of such approaches.

Lips (2010) offers a number of general actions educators and policymakers can take to support online and blended learning programs.  Lips calls for every state to develop a statewide virtual school, enabling course choice on a supplementary or full-time basis.  Lips also suggests expanding hybrid (blended) learning programs to support learning out of the classroom.  Specifically, districts should share best practices with each other regarding how to implement digital curricula into existing programs.  Importantly, Lips notes that federal policymakers should amend and revise federal policies to support online learning by providing control and flexibility to state education agencies.

Conclusions

             Online and blended learning programs such as Utah’s SOEP offer a prospective glance into an inevitable future.  Although some states have forged ahead of others in this educational opportunity, as technological infrastructure and awareness of existing programs continues to increase online and blended programs will become available to more and more students.  These programs have numerous benefits – from increasing access to equitable learning opportunities to balancing district budget sheets – but uncertainty about the long-term challenges to implementation sustainability continue to hinder broader involvement across the country.

Future researchers must analyze these outcomes including comparing design techniques, implementation procedures, and measures taken to adapt policies over time to fit the needs of students.  Researchers must also carefully design studies to compare student achievement within online and blended course choice programs against their peers in an effort to determine the most effective learning structures and environments for a given population of students.


 

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