Is Online Learning the Answer for At-Risk Students?

Oct 12, 2011

While it may be in many cases too late to save those students who have already dropped out of school, many districts are seeking ways to keep at-risk students from failing to earn their high school diplomas. Many agree that online learning can help keep these students engaged as this method provides a new way of approaching the material. In this way, online learning seems to be the answer when it comes to those who are struggling and frustrated enough to consider dropping out.

By Harrison Howe

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Giving Kids a Second Chance

Students who have not succeeded in a traditional classroom setting now have another option instead of giving up. It's online learning, and it's flexible, interactive and designed to motivate students in ways they might not have been motivated before. In short, it's giving kids a second chance by combining independence with the right amount of coaching.

While many agree that the ability to put students in control of their learning is one of the positive factors of the online method, some say that too much independence may not always be best for all students. In other words, students can't go it alone. Guidance and support from the school or a distance-learning adviser are important.

University of Florida's Jeanne Repetto, associate professor in the special education department, recently told Education Week that motivation and accountability play a major part in online learning; without these, she said, students simply might not succeed in a virtual learning environment. Not all students can be expected to possess these traits, and that's where the teacher or adviser comes in. These individuals act as coaches, project directors and even mentors.

It's referred to as the 'blended' approach, and it's proven to be very effective.

According to the online journal Education Next, the blended approach marks a trend in online learning. Communities in Schools, a nonprofit program directed at preventing students from dropping out of school, developed Performance Learning Centers (PLCs) in 2002. Now encompassing seven states and more than 30 schools, PLCs combine online and traditional learning. In Virginia, PLCs have graduated 91 students in just over three years. What's more, PLC students in Virginia are ahead of state averages for end-of-course exams in algebra, biology, reading and writing.

Making Graduation a Reality

One of the main focuses of online learning for at-risk students is to help them recover the credits they've lost by failing classes in the past. At the North Carolina Virtual Public School, for instance, 3,000 out of 10,000 students enrolled in the summer of 2011 were for credit recovery.

Another focus of online learning is to help at-risk students achieve success early in the program and to provide topics in an interactive and engaging manner. Some feel that if students can recover a credit or two within the first several weeks, they will begin to gain confidence in themselves and their teachers.

One way is to mold learning to fit students' interests. Westwood Cyber High School, a virtual school located outside of Detroit, stresses the re-engagement of at-risk students. The school's managing director, Hilliard Hampton, told Education Week in August that the school 'takes things that interest them, such as skateboarding or even playing basketball, and apply it to projects.'

If nothing else, online learning is certainly attracting students. PLCs in Virginia have a waiting list to enter the program. Westwood Cyber High School's enrollment has expanded from 180 to 700 students in just two years. And NCVPS enrolled 17,000 students in spring 2011. Many are likely similar to Tyriq Jones, an 18-year-old student who 'got backed up' in high school and very nearly dropped out. Instead, he transferred to a PLC in Hampton, Virginia, where he maintained a C average.

In June 2011, Jones graduated. It's something he might not have done without an online learning opportunity.

Learn how one Kansas high school is using an online curriculum to turn around its dropout rate.


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