Applying Lessons Learned From Online Learning Research

What is the point of going through the complexities of a research project if you don’t apply what you learned? To be honest, my first experience of being deeply involved in a research project started out perplexing and somewhat painful. I was ignorant of the complexities of quality research and how the “researcher’s mind” worked. I believed in education research to confirm my teaching strategies and practices throughout the years, and used published research to justify requests for grant funding and to make my case with legislators. However, I really was not aware of what makes research high-quality and valuable until our program’s participation in the Virtual Education Research Alliance (VERA).

Our relationship with the researchers from the Regional Education Laboratory Midwest, the American Institutes for Research, and the Education Development Center began in the spring of 2012, resulting in VERA, that included educators and stakeholders from Wisconsin and Iowa. The main goal was to develop capacity for Wisconsin and Iowa to collect and provide data to online learning programs to help improve student outcomes. The project was also intended to help online programs “carry out a research agenda” that focused on questions about student achievement and the methods which online teachers and school staff support student success in online courses.

I will focus on Wisconsin Virtual School’s (WVS) experience and leave Iowa to tell its own story. We spent the first year on “survey development.” Here is where my ignorance kicks in! I thought to myself, this would be easy! We want to ask schools how they were using online learning for students, where did schools get their online courses, what challenges did they face, and how were they supporting online students? We had an idea what the response from schools would be, but really had no “research” or “proof” that our assumptions were correct. We also had no confirmation on what we needed to do to better support Wisconsin schools and students with online learning opportunities.

With the very patient and expert researchers, questions were created, reviewed, and then reviewed again. I learned that a question had to be crafted and asked in just right way and sequence, in order to get reliable information. Who knew that the questions also needed to be reviewed by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES)? Who knew that the proposal to do the research on the survey would go through multiple rounds of review followed by revisions and internal review by REL Midwest and then reviewed by the VERA members for revisions? Who knew the schools chosen to take the survey would need to meet specific criteria? (I thought we would just send the survey out to all Wisconsin high schools!) Who knew the survey needed to be have “pilot interviews” to further refine the survey questions and clarity? I had no idea of the complexities and time required, but I was beginning to understand the process and the purpose.

About the time the survey was prepared, approved, target schools identified, and school personnel selected to receive the survey, almost a full year had passed. In the fall of 2013, it was finally ready and approved to administer. Communications were sent to schools, completed surveys started coming in, data was analyzed, a draft report completed, and preliminary review of the results by members of the Alliance occurred by the end of the year. By mid-year 2014, a report for internal review and submission to IES for the final report to be accepted and published was completed. Online Course use in Iowa and Wisconsin Public Schools: The Results of Two Statewide Surveys became published research.

It was now 2014 and we were looking at data from the 2012-13 school year. Regardless that the data was now more than a year old, we were no longer wondering how schools were using online learning for students, where they got their online courses, what challenges did they face, and how were they supporting online students. We had data that showed us what was really happening in Wisconsin. It was time to apply what we learned to improve our program.

What we learned:

Findings supported that schools were using core online courses for credit recovery, courses not available locally, alternative learning environment, and to personalize learning. Forty-four percent of the schools obtained online courses from the local school district, 44% from Wisconsin Virtual School, and 12% from postsecondary institutions and other sources. Challenges in using online learning for students included: concerns about course quality, lack of funding, lack of student interest, access to technology, restrictive local policies, concerns over academic dishonesty, and lack of administrative leadership. Schools primarily monitor students in online courses by their final grade reports and an assigned onsite mentor. Only 41% of the onsite mentors received any training for their role in supporting online students.

Application of what we learned:

  • WVS has implemented an adaptive release credit recovery option to assist schools with their primary need of providing credit recovery option with a more personalized path.
  • We have started to add “awareness” initiatives (newsletters, website, social media, etc.) of what “quality assurances” should be considered in choosing online courses and services.
  • We are now part of the Wisconsin Digital Learning Collaborative (WDLC), a partnership between Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS), Wisconsin eSchool Network (WEN), and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI). WVS and WEN collaborate with DPI to provide a single point for schools to access quality online courses and services.
  • WVS is continuing to provide awareness of the critical role of the onsite mentor. We are improving and offering a variety of training options for the onsite mentor.
  • We have legislative support and funding to assist in administering the state-led collaborative (WDLC) to alleviate some of the funding concerns schools have about offering online courses.

I am now more aware and appreciative of the research process, less perplexed by the complexities of how research is conducted, and even more committed to taking what we learned from the research about online learning and applying it to improve student achievement and the online learning experience for students in Wisconsin.

Research Resources:

  1. Online Course Use WI (Infographic):
  2. REL Online Course Use – Stated Briefly:
  3. REL Online Course Use – Full Report:
  4. Three video interviews with the researchers and VERA members regarding the online course use survey conducted in Wisconsin and Iowa.