How Can We Ensure K-12 Student Success in Online Algebra Courses?


Online learning has been on the rise for the past two decades. Recently, much of the talk around online courses has revolved around the postsecondary level and MOOCs—or massively open online courses. Meanwhile, a quieter trend has been the widespread growth of online courses in formal K-12 education. Online courses have become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional, classroom-based curriculum in K-12 classrooms across the nation. In fact, experts estimate that roughly 3 million K-12 students experienced online learning in the 2011-12 school year alone.

Making Evidence-based Decisions about Online Learning

The proliferation of online learning opportunities for students—and accompanying student enrollments in such courses—is outpacing the research in terms of course quality and best practices for student success.  While there is increasingly rigorous evidence that suggests that students can perform equally as well, if not better, in online courses as they can in traditional classrooms, relative to the popularity of online learning, little research has been done on how to maximize student achievement in K-12 online environments. Few studies have examined the features or supports for implementation that contribute to high-quality K-12 online learning experiences.

As a result, district and school leaders who want to make evidence-based decisions about the courseware they purchase have little guidance on the features and practices that support student success in online learning.  Online courseware providers also express a desire for evidence-based features and practices to inform both their course design and implementation recommendations.

Where SRI’s Work Comes In

To begin to address some of these gaps in the research, SRI is conducting a study of online Algebra I courses. The emphasis of the work is on features of online learning rather than individual products.  We do not seek to rank courses or providers, but to identify strategies that look across products to identify generalizable design and implementation principles.

Based on our extensive research, we’ve written a report, Supporting K-12 Students in Online Learning: A Review of Online Algebra I Courses, that is meant to serve both as a primer to K-12 online learning and to inform both designers and purchasers of online courseware about the different kinds of online Algebra I courses out there.

Our Approach

We began by reviewing the research literature, which helped us identify course features that are important to student success, both in algebra and online learning. (In our research, we have placed a particular emphasis on Algebra I because of its importance as a gateway course that helps predict students’ future academic success, as well as its high enrollment numbers.) Then, we identified some of the biggest providers of online learning in U.S. schools today  – K12, Apex Learning, Florida Virtual School, Edgenuity, Michigan Virtual School, and  – and asked them questions about their courseware and how it’s being used in schools. After that, we independently reviewed their online Algebra I courses, looking specifically for evidence of the features we identified as important from the research.

In the report, we describe our findings from across the existing body of research, from interviews, and from a review of the courseware of each participating provider. One of our most salient findings is that there is a lot of room for growth in terms of the accessibility of online courses to all students, but especially to at-risk or struggling students. Read the report to learn more about our findings and how the individual courseware providers differ in their approach to online Algebra I.

Innovative Research Methods

While the release of the report represents the culmination of the first phase of our study, it is not the end of our work. The next phase of SRI’s research will examine system use and outcomes data to examine whether or not the features identified in Phase 1 are associated with student success.  Through our innovative approach, which focuses on features rather than individual products, we will provide evidence to consumers, developers, and researchers regarding the effectiveness of practices used to address students’ needs in online Algebra 1 and identify generalizable design and implementation principles that can be used to estimate the likely success of programs in the future.

Read more from SRI