It’s a lot easier for teachers to offer students help when they know exactly where a student is struggling and with what. That’s the premise behind the rise in data analytics tools in the classroom. Just about every digital learning platform now offers some way to measure student success to varying degrees. As an entirely online school, Academy Online High School (AOHS) was interested in understanding its students on a deeper level so administrators invested in an integrated learning platform that would provide that ability.
“We had to look at how teachers can move beyond just simply looking at a gradebook. How can teachers know where their kids are in the learning process and what trends are out there?,” says Rick Tanski, former principal and now Human Resources director at AOHS.
The platform Tanski chose is called Brightspace by D2L, a provider of integrated learning platforms. AOHS teachers can measure four dimensions of student progress including how often a student accesses the course and how often he or she accesses course content. Teachers can also measure grades and how students interact with one another in online discussion boards. These dimensions provide educators with valuable insight. Teachers can gauge whether or not a student is spending enough time engaged with course content and various data points allow an educator to jump in and intervene with a struggling student before the problem becomes serious.
AOHS has been using Brightspace for four years now to help drive its online classes and the Colorado-based high school follows what it calls a standards-based model of education.
“We begin with some e-learning objectives or some learning goals,” Tanski explains. “We say what do we want kids to know and be able to do at the end of the year or semester? Then we begin our planning from there.”
This sort of model is also known as “backwards planning,” which simply means you start with an end goal in mind and design curriculum from there. Every piece of content or learning objective is created or chosen with a goal in mind. That’s one way AOHS differs from a traditional public school. The other more obvious way is that the school is entirely online, resulting in what Tanski refers to as a “technology-mediated environment.” Students can access the content they need to at any time and teachers have the ability to obtain information on students’ progress as they work to gain particular skills and competencies. Tanski says this is much harder to do in a traditional public school.
“That requires a lot of monitoring and management and without a technology mediated environment that won’t happen. Teachers simply have limits as human beings. As we move towards a blended approach where online and face-to-face education are becoming nearly indistinguishable, a technology-mediated environment can really help teachers help kids.”
So what might that help look like? According to Ken Chapman, vice president of Market Strategy at D2L, tools like Brightspace offer “predictive analytics,” meaning teachers can use data points to identify potential problem areas and head them off.
“In some cases, it might be those students that aren’t participating in the online discussions in the first couple of weeks,” Chapman says. “Teachers know that is a risk factor for disengagement and underperformance.” Using Brightspace, teachers can automatically warn students who are exhibiting behaviors the analytics tool deems risky. In a traditional learning environment, teachers can’t lean on technology for that sort of help. They have to monitor and catch that behavior themselves.
The Formula for Success
AOHS has found success by combining good teaching practices with technology. When the school was founded seven years ago it was staffed by traditional in-room teachers who were willing to learn new ways of delivering education.
“We didn’t start out with online teachers,” Tanski says. “We started out with in-building teachers who wanted to try something new and crazy.”
These individual were regular classroom teachers during the day, but applied for the opportunity to take on one additional class delivered online.
AOHS invested its time in helping teachers to understand the difference between delivering instruction online versus a face-to-face environment. One of the key ways the school did this was to expose teachers to the same online platform their students were using.
“One of the best ways to help teachers learn what it’s like to be an online student is to help them learn as an online student,” Tanski says. “Our professional development leverages the same system and the same components of Brightspace that the kids do.”
Tanski is careful not to credit any one particular technology as the sole reason for the school’s success. It’s not just about having a technology tool in place.
“What it is attributable to is giving teachers the information they need at the moment they need it,” he says. “Teachers now have the flexibility and the information to react at that moment, rather than waiting until something happens and trying to solve the problem.”