As online learning rewrites K-12 education, Edgenuity shares its playbook

Sari Factor of EdgenuityOnline learning, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) in particular, stand to reshape the landscape in higher ed—perhaps even save it. But what about K-12 schools?

While public education in the U.S. continues to lag behind the world's best educated countries, many administrators, teachers and parents are left to wonder if technology has left them behind. If answers come via online learning, then so be it, but schools are looking for solutions.

As a part of our ongoing effort to keep up with companies coming to market with these solutions, Education Dive spoke with Sari Factor, CEO of Edgenuity, Inc., an online learning platform primarily for K-12 audiences. Here is what she had to say about how online learning can solve long-standing problems in education and is redefining the roles teachers play in the classroom:

EDUCATION DIVE: What is the unique problem that Edgenuity is trying to solve?

SARI FACTOR: It’s really one of personalizing education, to create a very student-centered focus. When you are in a classroom of 30 students, which is very typical for a middle school or high school, it’s very difficult to individualize that learning experience. The average teacher probably has somewhere between from 150-180 students that they’re responsible for teaching in the course of a day. It’s very hard to get to know the students.

What we have done is we've built courseware on a platform that’s highly flexible, that enables schools to create online learning programs to personalize instruction for students under the supervision of their teachers. We have segments of videotaped instruction coupled with assessments, activities, simulations and then learning tasks. Students can move through at their own pace and access it anytime, anywhere.

And is this supposed to be in tandem with in-person education or does the videotaped instructor already take care of that?

FACTOR: No. Although the videotaped instructors are highly qualified, certified teachers, our assumption is they are using it in an environment where they also have an in-person teacher. School districts generally have a teacher or facilitator that’s in the lab or in the room or even working at a distance. If they don’t, we can provide a teacher at a distance to facilitate the instruction.

If students have questions, are they able to ask those during the videotaped lesson?

FACTOR: Absolutely. In a situation where it’s in a brick-and-mortar building, oftentimes there’s a teacher who’s walking around that lab and answering questions as students have them. In a situation where we are providing that student’s teacher, there’s a button that says, “Student support,” which they can click on and get immediate support from one of our coaches or instructors.

We all know higher education is undergoing a big boom in online learning right now, so why does Edgenuity mainly serve the K-12 audience?  

FACTOR: Online learning first came into the K-12 market to serve the kids that were deemed exceptional — students who were way ahead, kids who wanted to take AP courses but didn’t have access to them in their local high schools. And then the students who were at the low end of the spectrum — special education students, students who had fallen behind, at risk of [not] graduating, students who needed to make up credits because they’d failed a course or looked like they were on track to fail a course. That’s what really fueled online learning until very recently.

Then, we started to see a movement where more and more schools are looking to create blended learning environments for their students, giving them the opportunity to take online courses. Data has shown that students who learn online become better at self-regulating and become more self-directed learners, which is how they’re going to have to be when they graduate high school and go on to college or even when they’re out in the world of work and decide to change careers and have to learn something new. They have to be self-directed.

Online learning at the K-12 level is really starting to gain some momentum. What we are finding is that more and more schools want to provide access to a wider variety of courses for their students. Recently, as the economy has struggled, a lot of schools have had to pull back on their elective courses. So, when they used to offer three foreign languages, now they only offer Spanish. With online learning they can offer a wider range of courses. Studies have shown that students who do take career electives and a career pathway in high school are more likely to graduate and go on to a lucrative career, whether they go on to college or not.

How does Edgenuity's uniform platform cater to different kinds of students?

FACTOR: One of the best things about the platform is students can track their own progress. We find that is very motivating. If it’s a one semester or a full year, you’ve actually put in the dates and the system is telling the student how much they have to accomplish each day to make that deadline. There are a wide variety of customizations that a teacher can do on a per student, classroom or whole school level. Things like the number of times a student can attempt a quiz before the teacher is alerted, things like closed captioning.

Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of students who have difficulty in school are not native English speakers. The ability to read a transcript, to translate a transcript into a student’s native language and to hear that transcript spoken are all available. So we have lots of supports for students who need extra help. The teacher can also customize a course to add or eliminate a writing assignment or put in some of their own assignments, if they so choose.

How can platforms such as Edgenuity's better prepare students for jobs than a brick-and-mortar education would?

FACTOR: It’s really an access issue. Some schools have career and technical education (CTE) programs, others do not. Oftentimes, a school district will have a CTE program but it requires a student to go to a vocational training center that might be miles away from the high school they attend. Inefficient, terribly inefficient.

We actually offer three different kinds of courses. We offer career explorations courses, which are targeted at middle school students or early high school students, where they can basically see what’s out there. They take an assessment that gives them an idea of what career path they may want to focus on. So there’s a career explorations component to the early course, then there are career electives for kids who just want to play around, get a sense of what computer programming is like, what’s green energy like. They might just have a hole to fill in their schedule and they want to take something for fun. 3D animation is one example that’s really popular.

And then we have these "career pathways." We’ve identified three areas we’re focusing on for our initial pathways: business, IT and health sciences. We did that based on the demand for jobs in the next 5 to 15 years. What we actually have built out are introductory courses that students would take earlier in their high school career and then the actual pathway, like mathematical terminology, and then they have to choose one of three pathways on health science certified nurses assistant training, we have medical coding training and pharmacy tech training. These are to prepare kids for occupational certificates that they could take as soon as they graduate.

How do you see the education space changing as we move forward?

FACTOR:  It’s certainly about personalizing education. Studies have found that students often drop out just because they’re bored. They may have great academic skills but they don’t see the point in graduating high school. A lot of them could be re-engaged by having this kind of coursework, if they knew that there was a goal that they were working towards.

I think that having alternative paths to graduation will start to happen. The Pathways to Prosperity report developed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education defines this momentum, talks about what's happened in Europe and outlines that there are multiple pathways. College may not be right for every student. Although every student should have the opportunity to go to college, some aren’t interested, some can’t afford it and some just don’t want to spend the time.

Another trend I see is the blending across K-12 and higher education. You’re starting to see more and more programs that achieve that blend. You’re starting to see states think about K-16 or K-20, as opposed to simply K-12 and a completely separate higher education program. More and more, there are dual enrollment programs. We think the opportunity to bring the career down to high school is interesting because students could take this pathway and go right into the world of work as opposed to graduating high school and then spending $4,000-5,000 to get one of these certificates at a community college or a career college. There are opportunities to blend that K-20 experience and provide students with what each individual wants and needs for their own career.

What are the advantages an Edgenuity-like platform has compared to new online competitors like massive open online courses (MOOCs)?

FACTOR:We’re another alternative. To me, right now, MOOCs are one-way — you’re watching the lecture and then somebody’s got to engage. You have to have that intrinsic motivation to want to learn. When you think about the number of people who start MOOCs and the rate at which people complete MOOCs—and, frankly, it’s the same for many online courses—that’s one of the challenges that you see with higher ed online. Are the students finishing the courses, are the students finishing the degrees?

In high school, you’ve got compulsory education so most of the kids have to be there until they’re 16. But I think there’s also a support structure in schools that really helps students begin to learn about how they are as learners and what will make them successful as learners. We spend a lot of time with students teaching them how to use notes, how to help comprehend and internalize what they’re learning. There are online glossaries and features like that built into our system that try to get kids in touch with their own learning styles and what works for them. I don’t know that MOOCs or any of the higher education environments for online learning provide as much support. But I think that once kids are taught to learn online, they will be better online learners.

What can a platform like yours do to help students acclimate themselves to online learning?

FACTOR: We train the students but we also train the teachers. It’s a very different teaching modality compared to teaching in a face-to-face environment. A lot of the what I'll call "high value activities" a teacher provides - the coaching, the mentoring, the intervening when a student doesn’t understand something - are what’s most valuable about what a teacher does. In terms of lecturing to a class, you’ve got to point out some important content and how these things work, but that could be more easily replicated by a really great teacher. MOOCs do that all the time.

Grading the papers and stuff? Technology can do a lot of that. Certainly for multiple choice kinds of assignments. We have an essay grader of course, but we always suggest that the teacher review what the essay grader has come up with and add their own comments as well. We train the students what to look for, but almost more importantly we train the teachers as to what their new role is with online learning.

And what is that new role?

FACTOR: It’s about monitoring and mentoring. They get data, in real time, at their fingertips. They can see how students are progressing through the system. They can see which students are struggling with the same concepts and pull out small groups to intervene. And then there’s that mentorship, creating that personal relationship, which is absolutely impossible when you see 180 kids every day and youre doing all those other tasks. We really think this frees good teachers up to be great.

What vision do you have for Edgenuity going forward?

FACTOR: The Common Core standards has really given us an opportunity to rethink how we deliver curriculums for schools. At the end of the day, it's about student outcomes. We're spending a lot on research and we're working with our school partners to track their data, what’s working and what’s not. We're learning as much from our customers as we're teaching them.


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Filed Under: K12 Technology Online Learning