Online Learning Graduation Requirement: Lessons from Michigan

Joseph R. Freidhoff, Ph.D.
Michigan Virtual

In 2006, Michigan became the first state in the United States to adopt an online learning requirement for high school graduation. The policy allowed three ways for a student to fulfill the online learning requirement. One way was for a student to enroll in a fully-online semester- or trimester-length course. The second was to participate in an online experience of at least 20 hours. The third allowed for the requirement to be satisfied if the student engaged in online experiences that were incorporated into a series of courses that were required for graduation.

In 2013, Michigan joined a handful of other states by adopting legislation that provided parents and students the right to request a school enroll their child in an online course. Typically known as course access or course choice, the policy expanded online course access for students. The year before, the Michigan legislature directed Michigan Virtual, a state-supported, non-profit organization that ran the Michigan Virtual School as well as offered online professional development for educators and education personnel, to create and operate a research institute to support and accelerate innovation through research and provide leadership for the state in online and blended learning.

Over the last several years, Michigan Virtual tracked the state’s virtual learning performance through reports such as the Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Reports, original research, and a series of best practice guides for students, parents, mentors, teachers, administrators, and school board members. We have learned about the policy proposed for Ontario and believe there are lessons from Michigan that may be applicable as it is discussed and implemented.  Below are six recommendation we suggest be part of Ontario’s planning and development as it moves forward.

#1 – Focus on Spirit

As we understand it, the letter of the policy is that students will need to take a minimum of four courses in order to graduate. The spirit is that students will graduate being proficient with digital learning. The challenge with those focused on the letter is that it often becomes a checklist just to get through. Those who focus on the spirit tend to see it as a learning progression. With the spirit mindset, we think it is easier to have conversations about what students should be doing before they take their first online course as well as the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they should be developing during their online courses. Simply put, people with letter mindsets are going to ask the question “Is online learning right for this student? People with the spirit mindset will ask “What type of online experience is this student ready for?”

#2 – Insist on High-Touch

When it comes to e-learning initiatives, there tends to be a lot of talk about the technologies – the learning management systems, the computers, and the design of the courses.  We refer to these as the high-tech aspects. What typically is less often discussed are the high-touch components. This would include things like the role of school staff, the role the online instructor should play, even the role of the parent in the process. These wrap-around supports and connectedness are critical. We see time and time again that schools that have robust, high-touch components—in addition to strong high-tech components—are able to run successful programs, while programs that neglect the importance of the high-touch elements tend to struggle.

#3 – Play to Strength

In Michigan, one of the patterns that is quite clear is that students tend to be directed toward e-learning options when face-to-face options become problematic. Some of those problems are benign such as using e-learning to resolve a scheduling conflict or to take a course that is not offered face-to-face in the school. However, the most prevalent reason is that the students were not successful the first-time around in the face-to-face course, what we refer to as credit recovery. The challenge with credit recovery is that in addition to learning how to learn online, they are trying to tackle subject areas that are already a struggle for them. For first-time e-learning students, it may be worth considering scheduling them in subjects that they like and see as a strength of theirs and save subjects they may struggle with for after they have experienced success in the e-learning medium.

#4 – Start with Less

Another trend that has been quite consistent over time is students tends to show higher pass rates when they take fewer courses. To illustrate, students taking one or two e-learning courses in a year tend to show higher pass rates than students taking 3-4 or those taking 5-6. This trend suggests that it is advisable to spread the four courses over multiple years, or at least limit the number of e-learning courses in the initial years until the student has shown success, then slowly increase the number of e-learning courses thereafter.

#5 – Monitor Effectiveness

One of the examples in Michigan that we suggest replicating in Ontario is an annual report on student performance in their e-learning courses. As I mentioned earlier, in Michigan we have Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report. On an annual basis, the report shares data on how many students are taking e-learning courses, how many schools, etc. as well as how well these students and schools are performing. These data help inform the ongoing policy discussions and suggest opportunities for revisions to better achieve the spirit of the plan. It also provides opportunities for programs to benchmark their performance compared to their peers across the state. Across years, it also allows for monitoring trends.

#6 – Spread Best Practices

In Michigan, about a quarter of schools with e-learning have pass rates of 90% to 100%. What that means is that there are many examples of programs manifesting in the kind of success envisioned. It also means that many programs are not. The same thing holds true of students. We continue to see about half of students always succeed in e-learning courses while about a quarter experience mixed success and a quarter never succeed. We think it is safe to conclude that Ontario will also see large variation between schools and students. What will be essential is identifying what successful schools and students are doing and developing mechanisms to help successful practices spread to less successful programs and students as quickly as possible. This will require intentional design.

Let me end by admitting we don’t profess to understand the political dynamics at play in Ontario that have led to this policy. In the few articles I have reviewed, it seems that at least some people are concerned (or hoping) that the policy will result in less cost for the education system. We can’t speak to the policy’s intention. We can say, however, that it has not been our experience that high performing schools and programs have seen cost savings, rather high performing schools and programs are spending their existing funding in strategic ways to ensure student success.

We hope these insights from Michigan can help inform the debate and eventual shape of Ontario’s e-learning system.

Dr. Joe Freidhoff is a vice president at Michigan Virtual and leads its Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute.