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When students fail courses and need to make up credits, online courses can offer a flexible, convenient option. In fact, a large and growing number of schools are enrolling struggling students in online courses to restore credits and help them become eligible for graduation.

However, a recently completed study by researchers from Vanderbilt and the University of Wisconsin raise some important cautions and concerns. The study spanned the 2010-2011 to 2016-2017 school years and focused specifically on the use of online courses for high school credit recovery in the Milwaukee Public Schools. In the final year of the study, 20% of middle and high school credits in the school district were earned via online classes.

The good news is that the use of online courses appears to have significantly increased the percent of students who accumulated adequate credits to qualify for high school graduation. Obviously, a high school diploma holds the potential to open the door to employment opportunities and offers other social benefits. So such an outcome seems to be good news.

Unfortunately, there is far less evidence that significant learning occurred as a result of students taking the courses. In fact, the study noted that students who participated in the online courses lost ground in year-end reading and math scores.

Researchers reported widespread disengagement and cheating present in the online courses. In some cases adequate supervision was lacking. In other cases, supervising teachers were not prepared to assist students when they struggled with course content.

While the Milwaukee Public Schools was the focus of this study, the practice of using online courses for credit recovery appears to be a widespread and growing trend, especially in urban, high poverty communities. Sadly, the results in other locations appear to parallel those observed in Milwaukee.

It is true that not all instruction delivered by educators is of high quality. The reason these students are taking online credit recovery courses is that they were unsuccessful in classes taught by educators. The quality of learning opportunities offered in classes led by educators also deserves to be addressed.

A key question to ask is whether learning or graduating is more important? This dilemma is not new. High school educators for generations have found themselves helping struggling seniors make their way across the finish line to graduate, sometimes with compromises and tradeoffs in learning.

What makes this situation so concerning is the widespread nature of the practice and its implications for students who follow this route to receive a high school diploma. Having a high school diploma offers limited real advantages if it does not mean that young people have gained the knowledge and built the skills necessary to earn a diploma.

Certainly, schools are under pressure to demonstrate high rates of graduation. However, graduation should represent real learning, not accumulation of empty credits. It is time to revisit and rethink the use of online courses as an easy and convenient way to move students forward without ensuring meaningful learning.


Heinrich, C. J., Darling-Aduana, J., Good, A., & Cheng, H. (2019, March 27) A look inside online educational settings in high school: Promise and pitfalls for improving educational opportunities and outcomes. American Educational Research Journal. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831219838776

Thought for the Week

AI can teach and share knowledge, sure, but it lacks the key elements of human modeling, nurturing, and connecting that are essential components of a comprehensive learning process.

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