Failed Expectations: The Problem of P-12 Online Programs

The teacher was stunned. His online Advanced Placement English students, students from many different participating schools, had just turned in their first writing assignment. Many of them showed the high quality expected from AP students, but some were terrible. The students showed little understanding of the topic, and their writing skills were abysmal. He contacted their schools to see what he could learn about those students.

He learned that the students who had done so poorly had never done well in English classes in their lives — some had never passed a single one. Some were second language students who struggled to read and write English at all. What on Earth were they doing in AP English? In all the cases, the guidance counselors had decided that the students had no chance of passing a regular English class so they decided the new online AP English class was just the ticket. It was an online class so it had to be easy.

In successful educational experiences, all parties involved approach the experience with realistic expectations. Students assume that with reasonable effort they will pass the class. Teachers expect students will work within the rules, the curriculum will be appropriate, their administrative duties will make reasonable demands on their time, and they will be compensated for their work at an acceptable level. Administrators expect students and faculty will complete all required tasks on time.

In the traditional school system, this works pretty well since, after thousands of years of classroom evolution, everyone knows what to expect. In P-12 online education, however, even veterans are still trying to figure out how it works.

The model used in many P-12 online programs throughout the world is very different from what has gone before. In many of the most common models, a school district either sets up a small online program using some of its own staff teaching online courses or outsources some or all of the courses to an outside vendor. In the case when an outside vendor is used, the vendor’s teachers will have students simultaneously in a number of schools and even a number of states. This model brings the advantage of pooling students in low enrollment classes and allowing them to take classes that would otherwise not be available to them. In this early stage of its development, though, it also brings on problems that spring from the unrealistic expectations of its participants. When reality and expectations do not agree, problems are sure to follow.

The most common problem is the one cited above — just about everyone seems to think online courses are easy. When students, guidance counselors, and parents enter a challenging online program with the expectation that they are getting a free ride, the consequence is educational disaster. But that is not the only example of unrealistic expectations in online education. The mismatch between expectation and reality often occurs at every level of participation.  

Online education’s undeserved reputation for being easy, unfortunately, often infects the teachers who apply for the jobs. Many have an expectation that they will do little more than make sure the students complete auto-graded multiple choice tests. With some programs, that is actually true, but for the high quality programs being pursued by most schools today, the teacher is expected to facilitate discussions, guide projects, evaluate performances, remediate problems, provide content expertise, and generally do everything that is expected of a traditional classroom teacher. Online teachers have to be able to respond to student questions promptly — checking in once a week is not acceptable. A teacher hoping to do a little extra work to supplement the income from a full time job may be in for a rude surprise.

On the other side of the coin, program administrators often have unrealistic expectations of their teachers. The most important key to success in an online program is sustaining student participation, and program administrators frequently pile requirements on teachers to make this happen.

  • Send home progress reports to each parent every two weeks!
  • Contact every student who misses a day immediately!
  • Have a 1-on-1 synchronous meeting with every student weekly!

Make enough such requirements and the teachers will be overwhelmed and have no time left for teaching. In a physical school, most such work is done by the administrative staff, but online programs frequently shift too much of that burden to the teacher.

Online school administrations also seem to have a blind expectation that every teacher will perform all duties without the need for supervision. If a teacher in a physical school fails to show up for work one day, the school will know immediately, and the administration will make sure the classes are covered. In many online programs, a teacher can go AWOL for weeks before the students start reporting it. Many programs do not have any way of ensuring that their teachers meet expectations for student contact and grading.

Traditional teacher compensation is well understood. Teachers have a known number of classes with a maximum number of students for which they will be paid an established amount. There are no surprises. P-12 online education is different. Many online teachers are part time, and different programs have different ways of paying them. Some pay on a per pupil basis. That can work well in some situations but not so well in others. The amount of time needed per pupil can vary dramatically from program to program or from class to class. For example, there is a huge difference between 50 students in 2 sections of the same course and 50 students divided among 11 class sections in 11 different courses — and, yes, I have seen that happen.

Other programs pay teachers an hourly wage, with a cap on the number of hours. Many such programs start with very low pay, not much above minimum wage, and place a cap on hours that is unrealistically low. I once worked with a program that, believe it or not, expected teachers to average a half hour per student per semester. Consequently, a teacher who puts forth the effort truly needed to do the job well may end up working for an absurdly low pay rate.

Even what appears to be a reasonable teaching load itself can be beyond a teacher’s expectations. I was recently asked to see what I could do to solve a problem in an online program. The program had been contracted to provide the online portion of the curriculum in a large physical school. It was going well in general, but the English teacher was generating many complaints. I was aghast at what I saw. To begin with, although the teacher had what would normally be a reasonable number of students, those students were spread among every English class in grades 9-12, creating an enormous burden on the teacher just to learn the literature and other topics required in every section.

The real problem, though, was the curriculum requirements. The course had an unreal number of writing assignments — simply staggering. I was surprised to see that some of the students were actually on pace, but I was not at all surprised to see that the teacher had fallen far behind the program’s required turnaround time for grading student work. I could see why the comments on the graded work were bland and meaningless and why the grades often did not match the students’ performances. I don’t think any teacher could have kept up with that workload and done a respectable job.

That curriculum is the final example of failed expectations. The online program had purchased the curriculum without the kind of expert analysis needed to make sure it would be appropriate for its purposes. The unrealistic number of writing assignments was not the only problem with the course, and it was not the reason that students were struggling to understand the content. The online program had trusted that what they were purchasing would be just what they needed, and it was not until they had implemented it that they realized what a disaster they had on their hands.

In general, everyone who starts out in a P-12 online education program does so with good intentions. It is only when they find out that it’s not what they expected that things begin to go wrong. People starting a new program would be well advised to check carefully to make sure that what they are getting into is exactly what they expected.

2 Responses

  1. Excellent exposition on the true nature of online education. It’s certainly not an “easy” grade, unless the provider has very lax standards.

    I’ve worked with a number of online providers, including over 20 as clients. Some take their responsibilities very seriously and work hard to develop student learning. Others put their teachers in the difficult position of handling 450 or more students at a time.

    Technology will not replace great student-teacher interaction in my lifetime. With excellent technology teachers can handle more students, but that technology is not yet here across an entire curriculum. I won’t set a specific number on student-teacher ratios except to note that classroom (F2F) teachers frequently must deal with 150 or more students, and that’s too many for that situation. Can the online medium allow that number to double? Others can answer that question better than I.

  2. Harry says some online programs give teachers 450 students. He is correct. What some readers may not realize is that some programs give PART TIME teachers 450 students. At a half hour per student per semester (the norm expected in one program I know), 450 students comes to 225 hours of work per semester, or about 12.5 hours per week.

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