Identifying the Challenge: Building on Data and Experience
Since the inception of Montana Digital Academy (MTDA) it has been our belief that any student can be a successful online learner. However, some students come to their online class in need of more significant adult intervention than others. In other words, they may not be completely ready to tackle all of the elements of an online course such as the learning management system, communications with the MTDA teacher and student peers, using online tools, etc. while also facing the challenging content in the course. Due to this we have developed a new project, Stepping Stones, which is designed to provide students with a way to successfully embark on their online learning experience, especially those taking an online course for the first time.
The nature of Montana’s largely rural population places MTDA’s program in a unique role. While we philosophically believe that online learning should be a choice for students and their families, there are a number of situations where MTDA is the only viable option for students to take a particular course online even though they have no experience as an online learner.
Using our course completion data, teacher feedback and survey results from students and parents, we identified two student groups that would benefit from the Stepping Stones approach. These students are generally considered “ready” for online learning due to their success in the traditional face-to-face environment, yet they expressed frustration or discomfort with the digital learning environment. These students are:
- Advanced middle school mathematics students: Each semester, MTDA serves many students in middle school and junior high school programs that are substantially ahead of their same-aged peers in mathematics. Many of Montana’s larger school districts serve these students in their high schools by physically transporting them to a high school Algebra I or Geometry classes. However, Montana has a large number of K-8 districts where this option is not readily available.
- Advanced Placement™ and dual enrollment students in very rural high schools: Among the specific charges to MTDA upon its creation was to provide students Advanced Placement™ and dual enrollment opportunities, particularly to students in Montana’s many small, very rural high schools. While some students in this online environment are successful in advanced coursework, we have observed that many students simply don’t enroll in the advanced courses because they have not been exposed to a more rigorous, honors-level curriculum, so the leap into these AP courses is intimidating.
There are striking similarities in both groups. While students in both have had a high level of success in their face-to-face programs, some students reported not liking the online environment. A common theme was not feeling confident and prepared for the challenging online experience. In many small schools students expressed that they were the only one in their school enrolled in an online course. These challenges thus became roadblocks to students accessing advanced classes online.
We believe one powerful answer to this challenge is our “Stepping Stones,” an approach to student engagement that acknowledges that first-time online students may feel intimidated and overwhelmed and need additional support to become acclimated to the online environment. In Stepping Stones, students initially spend some time practicing the technologies and methodologies required to experience success in an online course, without the additional challenge of rigorous content. Next, students are exposed to “bridge content,” using familiar and appropriately rigorous content in an attempt to give students practice time using the newly acquired skills and tools. This “bridge content” provides the necessary scaffolding to ensure student success with the forthcoming “stretch content”. Finally, students are offered “stretch content,” which is content from the upcoming target class. This content is delivered at a slower pace so students can experience the rigor without the pressures of a fast-moving Advanced Placement™ or other advanced course.
We implemented this model with two pilot courses this spring (2015), Stepping Stones to Algebra I and Stepping Stones to AP Biology. Stepping Stones to Algebra I is aimed at middle school students intending to take Algebra I with MTDA this coming summer or fall. Students were offered four weeks of our Stepping Stones content, an opportunity to use EdReady Montana, our online math assessment and readiness tool, to be sure they were prepared for the Algebra I content and then an opportunity to work through as much of the that content as they wished. Stepping Stones to AP Biology is aimed at high school students intending to take AP Biology with MTDA this coming fall. Students were offered four weeks of our Stepping Stones content, an abbreviated version of our health occupations CTE course as “bridge content” and then the first unit of our AP Biology class co-taught by our Stepping Stones teacher and our MTDA AP Biology teacher working together.
If and when these students enroll in their next MTDA class, they will not only have a solid foundation in the skills and tools used in online courses, they will have already experienced at least the first unit of the target course so they will have a running start with the content.
We served a small number of students in the pilot this spring, with the intent of testing our model and gathering student data. The early data is promising. Our pilot teachers report a positive relationship with their students and fewer instances of student frustration over the technology. Based on early results, we would expect these students to successfully complete their target course this summer or fall.
In light of the early success, MTDA intends to expand the model to two new classes, Stepping Stones to Geometry, a class aimed at our very advanced middle school students who will complete high school Geometry with MTDA as an 8th grader, and Stepping Stones to AP Psychology, a course aimed at students in schools without AP programs that want to take an Advanced Placement™ course as an elective. While the project is still in its early stages we firmly believe that the Stepping Stones approach will become a factor in assisting many students to become successful online learners.
By: Mike Agostinelli, Instructional Program Manager, Jason Neiffer, Assistant Director/Curriculum Director, and Robert Currie, Executive Director of Montana Digital Academy