There’s strong demand for online content focused on a traditionally tough course—algebra—and a new report says there’s a lot of potential for providers of those classes to reach new audiences by improving the use of formative assessment, personalized learning, and interventions for struggling learners.
Those were some of the suggestions included in an analysis released by SRI International, a report that examines online courses in introductory algebra, or Algebra 1, an often-daunting academic hurdle that trips up many students on the path to more advanced math.
The report is meant to help both developers and consumers of online courses identify wise strategies for designing and making use of those courses.
SRI, a nonprofit research organization in Menlo Park, Calif., focuses on six providers of online Algebra 1 courses: Apex Learning, Class.com, Edgenuity, Florida Virtual School, K12 Inc., and Michigan Virtual School. (By way of disclosure: The research in the document was supported by the Gates Foundation, which provides support for Education Week‘s coverage of industry and innovation issues.)
All the providers agreed to take part in the study. In order to meet the authors’ standards for being included, they had to offer a completely online, credit-bearing course in Algebra 1 during the 2012-13 academic year, and have courses available at the state or national level, among other criteria.
Developers only focusing on supplementary materials, or on blended materials for students who receive most of their instruction from classroom teachers, were excluded.
While the use of online learning in algebra and other academic topics is widespread, “there’s not a ton of information about how to maximize student success in those environments,” said Jessica Mislevy, a research social scientist at SRI International, who co-authored the report. The report, she said, seeks to fill that void.
Among the findings:
• All the algebra courses reviewed integrate summative and formative assessments. But the information collected by the providers through those assessments tends to be narrowly focused on “the correctness of the answers,” not critical questions of how students ended up with those answers.
“Online courseware provides unique opportunities for using and providing student progress and performance in new and engaging ways,” the authors explain, “such as through graphic representations or through implementation of early warning systems.”
• New opportunities for personalizing learning to meet students’ needs in algebra are likely to emerge, as data systems improve.
More robust data systems will support “next-generation courseware that uses artificial intelligence to adapt curriculum scope and pace based on student performance in the system,” the report states. “Student progress data can also be used to automatically tailor content or its presentation to students, as with cognitive tutors.”
• Providers of algebra content can focus on doing much more to build students’ academic confidence and resilience in their studies, the researchers found.
Online environments offer the potential for providers to nurture these skills through the inclusion of specific exercises, as well as through supports designed to improve students’ time-management skills, or reminding them to take steps that could help them in their studies, such as taking notes, Mislevy said.
The report also offers insights from the providers themselves on the challenges of delivering academic content in algebra online, particularly for academically struggling students.
Motivating students is a problem, the providers said. Another challenge involves students beginning the online courses without the foundational academic skills to succeed in Algebra 1. In some cases, students’ lack of reading-comprehension skills can undermine their success in algebra.
Plenty of other observations and recommendations are included in the report, which could prove to be a useful resource for developers of content, as well as educators, tasked with helping students conquer the formidable challenge known as Algebra 1.