eLearning Census: Blended Learning Population Surges

The California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) began conducting the California eLearning Census in 2012 to better understand how full-time virtual and blended learning are evolving in California. On February 1st, 2014, CLRN distributed the survey to 1810 California public school districts and  direct-funded charters, receiving responses from 569 districts & charters (31%). The entire report may be found at http://clrn.org/census

The census counted 174,632 virtual and blended students in 2013-2014, a 39% increase since last year. While the virtual student population has remained stable since 2012, the number of blended students exploded this year, increasing 49% since 2013 and 74% since 2012. The blended median population rose 80%. While the top 25% of districts and charters continue to contribute a significant proportion of the total eLearning population, the three-year trend lines show that eLearning adoption is broadening among a greater percentage of schools and that the number of participating students at each school is steadily rising. An additional 38,745 students participated in either fully virtual and/or blended learning during the summer of 2013.

Comparing Online and Blended Population Trends

Actual population numbers only increased for blended learning during the past year, while virtual student populations seem to have stabilized. We’re not surprised, as Michael Horn had previously predicted that virtual populations wouldn’t account for more than 10% of the overall eLearning population. However, it’s also possible that state regulations have restricted district opportunities to offer virtual schooling. Starting with 19,820 full-time online (virtual) students in 2012, virtual populations rose to 24,383 in 2013 before settling back to 24,043 in 2014. However, blended learning populations have risen steadily over time. Starting with 86,257 blended students in 2012, the number of eLearning students increased 17% in 2013 and 49% in 2014.  In all, 74% more students are blending their learning now than were in 2012.

Census-population

 

Median Population Rises 80%

Median populations, the point where half the districts have more than the number and half have less, are often more telling. In 2013, median populations for both full-time virtual and blended populations grew 25%. This year, the virtual student population median decreased 14% to 60, while the blended population median grew to 180, an 80% increase.

Census-median

Hope for Blended Learning in California

 Michael Horn and Clayton Christensen were right in 2008 when they published “Disrupting Class” and predicted an upcoming tipping point in online and blended learning in K12 education. CLRN’s own California eLearning Census, now in its third year, witnessed the tipping point in 2012 and is currently tracking online and blended learning’s annual growth bursts. Midway through the 2014 census, with 22% of California’s 1800 districts and charters reporting, the median population of blended learning has risen 50%, having already risen 25% last year.

However, state policies in California continue to trail behind eLearning’s growth and are even creating roadblocks for traditional districts. Currently, traditional school districts must utilize Independent Study rules when placing students in online courses. Unfortunately, Independent Study rules in California require a significant amount of paper work for every student, including a requirement to track and store all work products. These burdensome regulations block or stall eLearning growth throughout California.

Now, there’s hope. Introduced in late February, SB 1143, by Senator Liu, would correct the problem. Briefly, the bill would “specify the computation of average daily attendance for…courses and would prohibit school districts…from having to sign and date pupil work products when assessing its time value for apportionment purposes.”

Indeed, good news for eLearning in California.

Deus ex Machina

One of the first things theatre majors do is read the classics from Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes and learn about Deus ex Machina (DeM), or God from the machine. DeM is a convenient plot device used to get playwrights and their characters out of jams. Just when the main character’s plight seems dire, and at the very last minute, a miracle occurs that solves the problem. DeM is fairly common in contemporary media as well.

 For the past year, CLRN’s future has been jeopardized by Governor Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which restructures school funding to provide maximum funds where they’re needed the most. As part of the process, and I assume to free up extra funds, the Governor eliminated the majority of special (or categorical) programs as well. Support programs such as the Gifted and Talented Education, Principal Training, School Safety and more than 40 others were eliminated and districts were advised to spend their funds as needed. Districts may choose to continue these programs or not.

While district funding under LCFF is returning to pre-recession levels, county offices of education are in a different position. County Office-led support programs such as Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) and Education Technology faced the same fate. However, given that counties had received funding to support district efforts, county offices must now either eliminate these special programs or charge all costs when providing support services. Counties have been placed in an adversarial and competitive position with districts.

Regional and statewide programs fared worse though. Educational Technology included funding for 11 CTAP regions and three Statewide Educational Technology Support programs including CLRN. While my county office will retain teacher training in hopes that their new fee structure can support the program, CLRN and the other SETS projects provide a statewide benefit. Should a single county office provide funding for a program that 1800 districts and charters benefit from?

Reviewing online courses, which is CLRN’s primary mission, is both a thorough and resource-consuming task, so funding reviews from publisher fees would be impractical. Also unlikely is the option to charge all districts and charter schools a fee to access CLRN’s reviews. Certainly, CLRN is painted into a corner. While CLRN enjoys support from a variety of high-level decision makers, the Governor isn’t likely to change his mind about ending categorical programs. CLRN’s only hope was a Deus ex Machina.

But, alas, not all stories have a clean, or a happy, ending. My county office was generous to continue our funding for the 2013/14 school year, but they are unable to fund CLRN next year. Because of LCFF, our county office won’t receive additional funding or Cost of Living Increases until 2020. In order for many county offices to make improvements, build new facilities, create new programs, or pay for raises, programs must be gutted to free up cash. There will be no Deus ex Machina for CLRN.

The good news, though, is that we made a difference. Thanks to Christensen’s and Horn’s Disrupting Class, we saw the eLearning revolution coming and decided to be proactive. If they were going to predict that online and blended learning were going to tip in 2012 and hit critical mass in 2019, then someone would need to inform K12 educators about course quality. Working inclusively, we designed the review process, rewrote INACOL’s Standards for Quality Online Courses, and established a partnership with the University of California to Certify courses. That partnership became the fulcrum for course improvement. In order for many courses to earn CLRN Certification, publishers chose to improve their content and supplement their media offerings to better align to both the content standards and INACOL’s course standards. From the start of CLRN’s partnership, the CLRN Certified rate slowly rose from 25% to 70%, proving that a fair and comprehensive review process benefits all players. Because CLRN chose to create a re-review process to provide publishers a second chance, the nation’s students now have access to higher quality courses.

When I became CLRN’s director in 2007, my primary mission was to help CLRN continually evolve to remain relevant to its customers. We accomplished that and more. Between our reviews of digital textbooks for Governor Schwarzenneger, our foray into online course reviews, our annual California eLearning Census, or our annual eLearning Strategies Symposium, we broke new ground and charted a course directly into the eLearning revolution.  I’m sorry to be the one to turn off the lights when we’ve come so far and accomplished so much, but I’m proud that we made a difference.

My last day at CLRN will be June 16th, after which my wife and I will retreat to our house in Nanjing for rest, tennis, reading, and relaxation. When we return, I hope to find new eLearning partners. The revolution is just picking up steam, so I hope others currently fighting the battles won’t mind someone new by their side. Until then, thank you for your support.

 

 

Digital Textbook Initiative, Plus Five

Updated 2/28/14 to reflect recent legislation.

Five years ago, California’s Secretary of Education, Glen Thomas, on the behalf of Governor Schwarzenneger, asked CLRN to participate in the Digital Textbook Initiative.  Our task was to find and solicit digital textbooks, to arrange and conduct their reviews of California’s standards, and to write a final report for each stage of the initiative. This post compares where we were then, where we are now, and how California should adapt to embrace the digital revolution. While now dated, our digital textbook page remains one of the most visited sites at CLRN.

During our presentations five years ago, we anticipated that digital textbooks would evolve in three directions: 1) digital representations of flat, linear textbooks; 2) interactive textbooks that blended text with video, animations, and interactive components; and 3) online courses.

eReader Textbooks (aka a digital book on an eReader)

In this version, print textbooks are simply transferred verbatim to an electronic form to be read on one’s computer or an eReader. In 2009, ereaders ran in the $259 range, but today they can be had for a quarter of that price.  A $60 eReader that can hold a thousand books is an affordable, disposable commodity. Send students home with a six-ounce eReader or 40 pounds of books. Lose the hard copy of a book and you’ll need to purchase another copy. Lose an eReader and you only need to replace the eReader. A one-to-one initiative with eReaders is much more realistic today than it was five years ago. Add that many states, including California, require publishers to supply digital versions of their adopted books and you’ve greased the paper to ebook transition.

Five years ago, CK-12 was the primary developer of open-source, high school textbooks, mainly focusing on math and science. At the time, CK-12 published these books as PDF or EPUB files. Today, their mathematics books are written for the Common Core State Standards, their science books will soon be aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, and grade six to eight textbooks are now available.  Kindle readers now have access to CK-12’s books through the MOBI format. CK-12 has also added instructional videos and assessments to their site to support these texts.

Interactive eBooks (subscription & web-based, or self-contained apps)

While some textbooks will remain in a flat, linear form, breaking up the content and embedding a variety of interactive components provides a more authentic experience for students. However, as digital content increases in complexity, so must the hardware required to play them. Interactive eBooks won’t play on $60 ereader. Instead, districts will need to invest in laptops, Chromebooks, and tablets.  Five years ago, interactive eBooks were already present in the form of Discovery Education’s middle school science techbooks. Today, an increasing number of states and school districts have chosen this online, interactive eBook in lieu of a printed text.  Since 2009, many other publishers, including Pearson, have stepped up with interactive eBooks for the iPad.

Online Courses

One of the few things that separate Discovery Education’s Techbooks from being full online courses is a learning management system. Otherwise, these resources include most of the instructional, practice, and assessment activities found in online courses.  Take content from a full-course textbook; break it into small chunks; add video lectures, demonstrations, formative and summative assessments, authentic learning experiences, and small group online projects;  embed these in a learning management system; and you have an online course.

In the past, California has adopted digital-only resources, particularly Compass Learning’s Odyssey Focus Math and iLearn’s iPASS Math Intervention in 2007. In 2013, California’s Common Core mathematics textbook adoption included three online courses by Edgenuity: California Common Core Mathematics for grades six to eight. These three adopted textbooks are actually full online courses.

National and State Digital Textbook Initiatives

Why has California stood still since the Digital Textbook Initiative? Our first problem is an attitude that if a “red state” has an innovative idea, it must be bad.  Think Texas and Florida

First, to credit California, our legislature has passed several digital textbook-related bills the past five years.  AB 1398 redefined “technology-based materials” to include the electronic equipment required to use them, meaning that districts can now use textbook funds to purchase the hardware to play digital textbooks. SB 247 allows districts to use textbook funds to purchase electronic versions. Recently, AB 133 requires that publishers provide digital versions for each of their adopted products and allows school districts to create a district-wide online digital database for classroom use..”

Florida digital textbook initiative.

A 2011 bill, SB2120, outlined that “all adopted instructional materials for students in kindergarten through grade 12 be provided in an electronic or digital format.” The state legislature, in order to provide a smooth transition, is currently allowing districts to conduct pilot programs to test a variety of resources and technologies, including Kindles, Nooks, iPads and netbooks.

Two years after the bill was signed, a related workgroup final report stated, “The work group believes that every Florida student in grades K-12 should have equitable access to a device through which each student can access high-quality digital content anywhere and anytime.” All resources must undergo a thorough vetting process and should meet industry standards for interoperability.  They also recommended the state evaluate their current textbook review process to include digital content and to become more flexible.

North Carolina

In 2013, their Governor signed a bill to “shift funding to digital textbooks and other instructional materials across the state by 2017.

Texas

In Texas, H.B. 4294 allows the state to adopt electronic textbooks and for districts to use textbook funds to purchase the technological equipment necessary to support electronic textbooks. eTextbook publishers may submit updated content for review and districts/schools may select a subscription-based electronic textbook.  Additionally, H.B. 2488 authorized colleges or the state to develop open source textbooks for use in classrooms.

 Texas Ed Code regarding textbook adoption

“…the provider of material on the list adopted under Subsection (a) may update the content of the material if needed to accurately reflect current knowledge or information.”

Federal

Most recently, in 2012, the FCC published the Digital Textbook Playbook to “help K-12 school educators plan for the transition to a rich, interactive, and personalized digital learning environment.”  However, the feds see only one type of digital book, “A true digital textbook is an interactive set of learning content and tools accessed via a laptop, tablet, or other advanced device.

Moving California Forward

How should California’s textbook adoption process evolve to embrace the digital and online course revolutions? First, we have to understand that that most adoption processes were designed for static, printed content that would remain unchanged for six to eight years. Even if Pluto were to become a planet again, you can’t expect school districts to discard their recently purchased books and then pay for version 1.1.

It’s different in the software world though. We’ve all grown up knowing that every software product is both imperfect and part of an evolutionary path. As technologies improve and users’ needs change, products are regularly updated with bug fixes and new features. Why can’t digital textbook adoptions do the same?

Take Edgenuity’s recently adopted math textbooks/courses in California. Under previous adopt cycles, these textbooks/courses were frozen in place for the next six to eight years. This is counterintuitive to the eLearning industry, which tends to update their online courses every two to three years. By the end of this current math adoption cycle, Edgenuity may have updated these resources two to three times. However, California’s students would still be using version 1.0.  While CLRN has reviewed online courses for the past three years, we’ve already removed 40 reviews of courses that have been updated since they were first reviewed.

Most importantly, California must fully embrace the digital revolution. When disruptive innovations appear, those of us who want to survive must answer some tough questions. Will this new technology put me out of business? How can I adapt or evolve to compete? With digital textbooks and courses, one might also ask, “Why do we have an adoption process and why are resources only reviewed every six to eight years?” Certainly, great new resources will have come and gone before the next adoption cycle returns, so how can we adapt to provide buying information on a timely basis?

Fortunately, 2012′s AB 1246, written to support the new Common Core mathematic textbook adoption, also included language that would allow for publishers to update their adopted materials and submit those updates for CDE review. California Ed Code now states, “60200(b)(2) If a publisher or manufacturer submits revisions to currently adopted instructional material for review after the timeframe specified by the state board, the department shall assess a fee on the submitting publisher or manufacturer in an amount that shall not exceed the reasonable costs to the department to conduct a review of the instructional material pursuant to this section.”

Version 1.1 of a digital book shouldn’t warrant a full and complete review, but a targeted review of the updated or added content. This is specifically what CLRN does with our re-reviews.  When CLRN created our online course review process, we utilized the Texas model to allow publishers to improve their courses and submit those improvements for a re-review. Basically, the publisher tells us what was improved, where we can find those improvements, and what standards are affected. I’m pleased that California’s AB 1246 established this new updating route.

Sometimes during a disruptive innovation, it’s best to stop what you’re doing and rethink your customer’s needs in a new light. In an era where paper textbooks may be going away, does organizing adoptions on a six to eight year cycle make sense any more? How can we provide timely information to school districts regarding standards-aligned resources? If digital resources are evolving beyond straight text, what additional criteria are needed so we can judge their quality and effectiveness?

While it has been five years since California’s Digital Textbook Initiative, the Great Recession has basically kept states static while the eLearning industry was continuing to evolve. Now it’s time to modify our adoption processes to address the current and coming changes to digital textbooks.

Have Online and Blended Learning Jumped the Shark?

With 16% of the 1810 California school districts and direct-funded charters reporting, we’re seeing some interesting trends in this year’s eLearning census data. While the data doesn’t tend to be statistically valid until we hit 28 or 29%, the yearly trends we begin seeing at the 10% return mark tend to hold up over time.  This post focuses solely on the three-year trend for blended and virtual student median populations.

In 2012, the median population of virtual students was 56, meaning that half of reporting schools had more than 56 students involved in virtual courses and half had less. The median population for blended learning was 80 that year. Last year, we found that both virtual and blended populations rose by 25% each with the virtual median standing at 70 and the blending population standing at 100.

This year, though, is different. As you can see in the chart below, the blended population median is currently 200, a 100% increase and the virtual student median population is currently 99, a 41% increase. I suspect we’ll see both median’s drop by the census end date on April 1st. It’s entirely possible, though, that online and blended learning in California have “jumped the shark” and are solidly on their way to critical mass.
Medians 

California eLearning Census: Initial Longitudinal Data

While the California eLearning Census launched February 1st, we’ve currently received 264 responses from California’s 1813 school districts and direct-funded charters, representing 15% of the total. This is in line with participation in the 2012 and 2013 census. This post is about 75 districts and charters that participated all three years. We’ll update this data in the final census report next April

Of the 75 districts/charters that have taken the census for three years, 43 are elementary schools

  • 28 of these are not now, and have no plans to utilize online or blended learning.
  • Four indicated that they are currently planning to implement elearning
  • Four indicated in year two they were in the planning stages and then stopped.
  • Two tested blended learning in year two and then stopped. A third district tested blended learning in year one and then stopped.
  • Two have had students blending their learning for the past three years.
  • In all, four of the 43 (9%) elementary districts/charters are currently eLearning.
  • One elementary charter school reported full-time virtual students.

 Elementary Blended Populations

  • 2012: 803
  • 2013: 122
  • 2014: 1502

32 of the 75 districts/charters are either K-12 or 9-12.

  • 22 have invested in online/blended learning all three years of the census.
  • Two are not now, and have no plans to utilize online or blended learning
  • Five districts weren’t elearning in 2012 but now are.
  • Three districts were elearning in 2012 but have now stopped.
  • In all, 27 of the 32  (84%) unified or high school districts or charters are currently involved in online and/or blended learning.

 K-12/9-12 Virtual Populations

  • 2012: 13,563
  • 2013:  11,247
  • 2014:  13,515

 K-12/9-12 Blended Populations

  • 2012:  2881
  • 2013: 19,108
  • 2014:  38,979

You’re Only a Lawsuit Away

There’s an old saying in Title One and Special Education circles that “You’re only a lawsuit away from being compliant” meaning that sometimes schools have to be sued to understand they must provide equitable access to all students.

The same is true for equal access to digital resources.

Back in 2009, Princeton University piloted Kindle DX’s in the classroom to counter high textbook costs. Not long after, the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, investigated a complaint by the American Federation of the Blind. The problem, as the DOJ found, was that the Kindle DX was not accessible to all students. It didn’t have a text to speech function so blind students could not enjoy the same benefits or have the same access as sighted students. This was a violation of the American Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Justice Department confirmed accessibility requirements for digital resources in 2010 through their “Dear Colleague Letter” to college presidents. In it, the DOJ reviewed its lawsuit against universities that had piloted the Kindle DX and said, “Under title III, individuals with disabilities, including students with visual impairments, may not be discriminated against in the full and equal enjoyment of all of the goods and services of private colleges and universities; they must receive an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from these goods and services.” In short, the letter stated, “It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.

Think K12 institutions are off the hook?

Think again.

The following year, the Office of Civil Rights issued Frequently Asked Questions about the 2010 Dear Colleague Letter.

In question three, the FAQ addresses whether the Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) was expressly against the use of emerging technologies. Their answer “encourages schools to employ innovative learning tools” but to ensure that all students enjoy equal access.

Question four, though, brings K12 into the picture. The OCR expressly states that “equal opportunity, equal treatment, and the obligation to make accommodations or modifications to avoid disability-based discrimination also apply to elementary and secondary schools.” You can’t just feign ignorance anymore. Those of us in Title One programs know that “all students” means “ALL STUDENTS.”

Your school built wheel chair ramps even though you may not have had any students with that need because some day a parent, student, or teacher WILL have that need. You also did it because the Federal government made you, but it was the right thing to do. We want all students to have equal access to a quality education. Should that be any different with online courses? eLearning’s equivalent of a wheel chair ramp is accessible media, particularly narrated presentations and video lectures.

 Accessibility criteria for online courses was pioneered by the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) which has created a detailed site, TxVSN Accessibility, with advice, criteria, and check lists. Here are their Accessibility Guidelines. One of CLRN’s requirements when reviewing courses is that all narrated presentations and videos include transcripts or Closed Captions. So, yes, when you’re constructing an online course, your customers, and the Office of Civil Rights, expects that course materials are accessible. There are free resources to assist you, including Universal Subtitles, which can be used to embed captions within YouTube videos.

Make use of them. All students deserve equal access to digital resources.

 

Proof that Inputs Matter

It’s not easy to advocate that inputs matter in a world that values outputs. Whether it’s graduation rates, test scores, or completion rates, these “end” numbers do give us something to compare both in the moment and longitudinally. If “x” percentage of students don’t complete an online course, or if test cores at a blended school drop after several years of increases, something must be up. However, many inputs contribute to each success or failure story, whether it’s teacher quality, professional development, site or district leadership, or classroom materials. It’s often hard to single out the specific change that led to success or failure given the number of parts in the machine.

I do suspect that many online or blended projects fail because of the poor quality of the courses themselves. After reviewing more than 500 online courses the past 2 1/2 years, we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum. While some courses provide engaging lessons, authentic projects, and formative assessments that vary lessons based on student responses, too many courses are merely online textbooks with multiple-choice tests placed at regular intervals. Read a few pages, read a few more pages, take a multiple-choice test, and then read some more. Repeat daily for a year.

Courses are slowly improving, though, and while CLRN is proud to be one of the reasons for that improvement, the primary motivation is our partnership with the University of California. Starting in May 2012, CLRN entered into a partnership with U.C. whereby online courses required our certification before U.C. would grant that course their A-G approval. To earn CLRN Certification, courses must teach at least 80% of the subject’s content standards and meet at least 80% of iNACOL’s Standards for Quality Online Courses. We also identified 15 “Power Standards” that must be within the 80%. These Power Standards are often where courses fail our certification.

As our U.C. partnership began, only 25% of the courses we reviewed earned our certification. Today, we’re at 67%. From one in four to two of three. Why?

It’s not that courses have dramatically increased in quality. Instead of making our reviews punitive, we created a re-review process that allows publishers to improve their non-certified courses and resubmit them to us once each year. Publishers have enthusiastically responded and re-reviews now consume 20% of our workload. While re-reviews increase our workload and provide publishers a second chance, our primary goal has always been to provide our customers with detailed information about course quality. However, we feel obligated to be part of the course improvement process. Many publishers are now increasing or improving their content, adding more engaging lessons, or making other improvements based on our initial reviews.

The chart below tracks our CLRN Certification rate from May 2012 to January 2014. The dramatic uptick in certification rates since May 2013 are entirely due to CLRN’s re-review process. Inputs matter.

Certified2014