Monday, February 13, 2012

Identifying the Successful Online Student

A year ago, I completed (for a graduate program) an intensive review of the literature related to the characteristics of the successful online student, 3-12.  As a result of my research, I created questionnaire instruments that can be used to identify those students who should be successful in an online course and those who will probably not be successful, grades 3-8 and 9-12. 

I withdrew from the certification program (Arizona State University), so my instrument has never been tested.  I offer it to any school or district wanting to pilot it, with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.
Creative Commons License

In short, I found that a student is likely to be successful online in either an independent or a blended setting if (in order of importance):
  • the student has a strong locus of control: internal v. external - in layman's terms, it means that the student is self-motivated and can speak up, but also that he/she will show up at the course and meet requirements (less important in a tightly blended environment) with little or no adult prompting
  • the student has strong and independent time-management skills - somewhat less important in the blended or home-school environment, but still the most important skill identified by online students themselves
  • [this is often overlooked] the student perceives that he/she has the support of parent and/or teacher in academic and other life challenges - I believe that this the most important predictor, but that is not fully supported by the data
  • the student perceives that online interaction with a teacher is important - this is a biggie - online students have to be able interact with online teachers (OK, not true in poorly constructed courses and programs)
  • the student perceives that online interaction with other students is important - but this does not mean that he/she has ever done it.  In fact, true collaboration is not that common in online classes
  • the student already uses the Internet at least once a day for school-related work - what this is getting at is some facility with using applications - most online courses are tightly self-contained, but a basic icon-literacy is still necessary
  • the student perceives that the online class/learning experience is valuable - this perception is itself a motivator
  • the student perceives that he/she has the ability to meet the online class time commitment - notice that is NOT the same as goal-setting - the best courses set the goals for the student and allow for progress through failure (similar often to gaming), and for the most part goal-setting is more important for success in the traditional classroom than in the online classroom
  • the student perceives that he/she has the ability to think analytically and solve problems strategically
  • the student has a strong sense of self-efficacy with regard to using technology for collaboration and communication - it means that he/she is confident with regard to the "tech side" of online learning (this does NOT mean that he/she has experience, although in today's world smartphones probably contribute significantly to this efficacy after age 10)
  • the student is aware of his/her learning style (tactile/kinesthetic, visual, auditory/verbal) - the learning style itself does not matter, but a student who knows how he/she best learns makes the best use of online education tools and options 
  • the student's performance on standardized testing (NECAP, NWEA, PSAT, etc.) and GPA (high school only) - there is a correlation between testing performance and success in an online program (not a surprise), but low scores are generally mitigated by positive correlations in the other factors
There are also small correlations between the economic status of the family and with having a computer available at home to online success, but these were not fully supported by data at the time of my research. 

Because the instrument was never tested, benchmarks were not set by me.  So - community help is needed.

What's missing:

When I began the research, I had anticipated that the factors would reflect the same set of skills identified by Heather Wolpert-Gawron and tightly overlap, as she points out, with the list of 21st Century Skills (Collaboration, Independent Learning, Communication, Problem Solving, Decision Making, Understanding Bias, Leadership, Questioning, Persuasion, Goal Setting, Sharing the Air, Compromise, Summarizing).  This is, after all, the premise of the rise of online as a viable, even preferred, 21st Century classroom.

But in fact, mastery or even past performance of these skills does not seem to be nearly as important as perceived ability and support in learning. Moreover, the following are not indicators of success:
  • writing skills - the best 3-12 programs will guide students in developing these skills - again, the can-do attitude is important, however; so
  • goal-setting (see note above)
  • collaboration skills - again, programs worth paying for develop these skills - students only need to perceive that the skills are valuable in order to be successful
In sum: 

Online success is not as simple as being a digital native.  Is not a given for any student cohort.  It is clearly very much predicated on believing that one can be a success in a digital classroom.  In sum, it is a choice made available by technology - a great choice for many students, but a poor choice for other students.  At this point in time, that is how it should be perceived.

The great advantage to online learning is that it provides a classroom that crosses or ignores the geographical and economic boundaries that so often bar potentially successful students from classroom success. 

One way to use this questionnaire is to give it "blind" to all students in a grade or program:
  • It would be interesting to compare teacher/guidance preconceptions about student success with actual student scores. 
  • It would be interesting to see what questions point to areas of the educational program that might be made more "online ready."  If, for example, a significant percentage of students do perceive time-management or problem-solving as strengths, the school has some work to do.
If you want my questionnaire, under the Creative Commons License terms (which means giving me credit if you use it or adapt it), contact me by e-mail.  I do expect those schools that pilot it to report their results - to me and to the global community.

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