When One State Required Online Learning in High School, Colleges Saw Changes, Too (CHE)

July 20, 2015

By Mary Ellen McIntire

Nine years ago, when Michigan began requiring high-school students to take an online course before graduating, it was the only state to do so. Since then, though, five other states — as well as some school districts — have followed suit.

The result is a growing group of students — in Michigan and around the country — who have experienced some form of online learning by the time they get to college. During the 2013-14 school year, 65,130 high-school students in Michigan reported taking an online course, according to a survey by Michigan Virtual University, a nonprofit corporation that provides online professional-development training. That’s about 15,000 more students than took such a course the previous year.

Now those students are arriving on college campuses with greater expectations that technology will be an integral part of their academic experience. By exposing students to how technology is best used in the classroom, several Michigan educators say, the requirement has in part led those students to expect college classrooms to also make thorough use of technology.

And their standards are rising. At Michigan State University, students don’t just want technology to feature in the classroom. They’re looking for it to be incorporated in a more productive way, says William Hart-Davidson, associate dean of graduate studies and an expert in online learning.

In other words, students see going online as about more than just turning in homework, he says. Some students come to a campus better prepared to use learning-management systems; others are more able to juggle an online course with other classes on campus. Most of them are savvier about technology.

“They’ve become a bit more critical consumers,” Mr. Hart-Davidson says.

More Demands of Colleges

Experience taking online courses can make students more successful when they take their first collegiate-level course online, says Adam L. Cloutier, director of teaching and learning support services at Henry Ford Community College, in Dearborn, Mich. They’re more focused and “better equipped to navigate the college system and our learning-management system,” he says.

But they haven’t necessarily become expert online learners. Students can fulfill Michigan’s requirement by taking a true online course in high school or by incorporating “online learning experiences” into required courses. Those experiences could include working with a blog or a WebQuest, an inquiry done completely online.

But not all online experiences are created equal, says Allison Powell, vice president for state and district services at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, and many schools’ attempts to build technology into their courses aren’t well thought out.

“Kids know how to use technology, but they know how to use it for their social lives and for fun,” Ms. Powell says. “They still need a lot of work on learning how to use it for being productive and to use it to learn.”

So professors are trying to respond to students’ interest in savvier uses of technology in the classroom without assuming too high a skill level. Across the state, they’ve adopted a range of approaches:

At Davenport University, in Grand Rapids, Mich., online courses have allowed students to connect with peers on other campuses and to take advantage of more courses, says Kriss Ferluga, faculty course developer for delivery systems. In the fall of 2011, 194 students took an online course through Davenport. This past fall, that number rose to 484 students.

Mr. Hart-Davidson, of Michigan State, says his students now expect online course-management systems to be integral parts of any course — as a repository for course materials and often as a place to take tests or quizzes.

But he has taken that a step further by using an application called Tone, which links up to his course-management system and notifies students on their mobile phones about coming assignments.

Professors may not be eager users of mobile technology, he points out, but many of his students use it regularly.

“There’s a gap there, which creates more of a problem,” he says. “They’re in one set of systems, and we’re in another set. The two don’t talk to each other very well.”

Testing Tactics

In the College of Arts and Letters, where Mr. Hart-Davidson teaches writing courses, students complete group work online. The university developed a software system that allows students to view peers’ papers outside of class. That frees up more time to discuss students’ writing in class, because they can read one another’s work beforehand, he says.

Professors at Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, Mich., use tools likeTegrity, which lets professors record videos or podcasts of their lectures for students to play on their own time, says Todd A. Stanislav, director of the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning there.

The center has encouraged faculty members to break up their lectures into chunks, which allows students to focus on particularly challenging topics, Mr. Stanislav says.

“If you have a video lecture on a single concept, you can tie other kinds of activities to that,” he explains, adding that students can then take a quiz or write a short piece on the topic. “You have to get the students to think, as learners, about really being able to master a particular concept or skill.”

Professors have also sought out ways to administer tests and quizzes online, and Mr. Stanislav says many have asked the center for help in designing online examinations and controlling the outside information students can view online while taking a test.

Efforts are afoot to build on the online-learning requirement in Michigan. State laws passed in the last decade have put more funding into schools for new technology, says Mark Smith, executive director of the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning.

Meanwhile, Michigan Virtual University hopes to persuade local colleges to encourage prospective students to take a full online course, not just a “learning experience,” before applying. The virtual university’s president, Jamey Fitzpatrick, says he doesn’t think colleges have done enough to tell parents and students about opportunities to take online courses while on a campus.

“The vast majority of young people today going through high school know they need to take four years of math, four years of English,” Mr. Fitzpatrick says. “They probably don’t know that they need to have this online-learning experience.”

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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