How Michigan school handbooks present information about online learning

Michigan’s K-12 online learning policies have evolved significantly over the last two decades, allowing for more instructional options and learning opportunities for students in public schools. Two specific policy shifts have likely had the most impact on how Michigan’s schools make online learning options available to their students. First is a 2006 requirement, passed as part of the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC), for students to participate in an “online learning experience” before graduating from high school, an attempt to ensure that students are prepared to meet the demands of the workforce and cultivate the skills necessary for lifelong learning. Second is legislation passed in 2013 that allowed students in grades 5 to 12 (revised to K to 12 in 2016) to enroll in up to two online courses during an academic term, as requested by the student.

Policy, though, is often different than practice. For the purposes of this focused research endeavor, the research team sought to gain insight into how Michigan public school districts are informing parents and students about online learning requirements and opportunities. MVLRI collaborated with graduate students from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education to analyze the parent/student handbooks of 189 schools from across the state of Michigan. This sample was restricted to Michigan public high schools, given that research shows that the majority of virtual course enrollments in Michigan occur at the high school level. The following selection criteria available from Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI), returned a total of 426 LEA schools:

  • Entity Status: Open-Active
  • Entity Type: LEA School
  • Entity Actual Grades: exactly 9,10,11,12
  • Entity Local Name is specified
  • Entity Actual Educational Settings contains “GenEd”
  • Entity must have reported headcount data in Spring 2016

The sample was further stratified according to four categories of locale code (Town, Rural, Suburban and City). Finally, the sample size calculation (hypothesized probability = 50% and 95% confidence level) returned 203 schools (City =18.72%; Rural = 31.53%; Sub= 33.99%; and Town=15.76%) with + or – 5 of confidence interval.

The sample was further stratified according to four categories of locale code (Town, Rural, Suburban and City). Finally, the sample size calculation (hypothesized probability = 50% and 95% confidence level) returned 203 schools (City =18.72%; Rural = 31.53%; Sub= 33.99%; and Town=15.76%) with + or – 5 of confidence interval.

Of the identified 203 schools, 14 did not have school handbooks readily available online and did not respond to requests to make them available, thus narrowing our final sample to 189 schools. Additionally, many school websites include pertinent information about online learning in distinct subsections of the school’s website or in other important documents, including course or curriculum guides, that are separate from the student-parent handbook. These instances were noted and may be useful for further research. It is encouraging that 84% of the school handbooks analyzed made at least some reference to online learning. However, these references seemed to be scattered across different contexts and varied in the amount or accuracy of information provided. For example, some made mention of online courses with regard to athletic eligibility, others only to the “weighting” of online course grades, and others even mentioned online learning only in sections dealing with cheating and plagiarism. Though mentions of online learning were scattered, further analysis of the available student handbooks revealed a number of distinct themes outlined below.

“Online learning experience” requirement. By far the most cited information with regard to online learning in school handbooks is the 2006 requirement for an online learning experience in the MMC, referenced in nearly one-third (61) of all handbooks analyzed. Though this is the most frequent aspect of online learning mentioned in school handbooks, the amount of elaboration or guidance that is provided on how the requirement should be met varies widely; a large majority of handbooks offer no elaboration whatsoever.

Credit recovery. The second most frequently cited context in which online learning was mentioned in school handbooks was credit recovery. Nearly 18% (34) of the handbooks analyzed made specific mention of online learning used to recover credit. This seems to make sense given that Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report 2014-15 found that 46% of that year’s virtual enrollments were from students who failed three or more non-virtual courses. That same subsection of students also only passed their virtual courses 40% of the time.

Instructional options. The last theme to emerge from the analysis of Michigan school handbooks was what the research team refers to as “instructional options,” or the mention of online learning as an opportunity for students to learn in a different modality. Online learning instructional options were mentioned in 12% (23) of the school handbooks analyzed. These mentions included the legislative provision of section 21f; some handbooks even included the language of section 21f verbatim.

In addition to the themes discussed above, there were also two other points of note. First, not only was there not a great prevalence of information regarding online learning in the handbooks analyzed, there were even some cases of misinformation. For instance, one handbook restricted online course enrollment to courses not already being offered by the high school and only those courses approved by the principal; it also required that students assume total responsibility for the fees associated with the course, in direct contradiction to section 21f. In another instance, a school handbook specifically stated that the online learning experience was not for credit (again contradicting the allowances of section 21f) and directed students to use an online career planning service to fulfill both the online requirement and another state requirement. The second point of note is that many of the handbooks seem to be very dated, given that over 75% of them make reference to “personal digital assistants,” a term for a mobile computing device that has fallen out of fashion since the rise in popularity of smartphones beginning a decade ago.

Recommendations

Given what was found within Michigan’s school handbooks and on their public websites, the research team developed a set of recommendations for schools to best inform parents and students about online learning requirements and options. First, schools should continue to include information in their handbooks regarding the 2006 MMC “online learning experience” requirement. The research team also suggests adding more context when mentioning this requirement, especially providing the choices for meeting that requirement, which may include taking a fully online course for credit or the options available to students under section 21f. Second, schools should be sure to note the variety of reasons a student may want or need to enroll in an online course and be careful not to limit those reasons to specific circumstances such as credit recovery. Lastly, school handbooks should offer information about specific online program structures and supports for students participating in online courses. This language could include links to general support documents such as the Student Guide to Online Learning and the Parent Guide to Online Learning, which include useful information for the processes, procedures, and options involved in taking online courses.

Below is a sample section on online courses recommended for modification and inclusion in parent-student handbooks; this resource has also been added to Michigan Virtual’s 21f Toolkit.


Online Courses

(School name) offers students the opportunity to take online courses to complete their curricular requirements, including the MMC requirement to complete an online learning experience. The state law known as Section 21f allows for students to take up to two online courses — or more with parent, student, and school leadership agreement — during an academic term. Online courses may be completed in place of traditional courses in the student’s regular schedule, either for first-time instruction or to recover credit for previously failed courses. Students taking an online course under 21f will be assigned a mentor to help support them in their learning. Students may select online courses from the local district catalog at [website address] or the statewide catalog of online courses at https://micourses.org.

Students who are successful online learners tend to have good communication and technology skills, a sense of self-discipline and motivation for learning, a general interest in the course subject matter, and a dedicated place to work on the course with computer and Internet access. Parents and students are encouraged to review the Parent Guide to Online Learning and Student Guide to Online Learning before deciding to enroll in an online course. Students must work with their counselor to find the course options most suitable for their needs and learning preferences.


Thanks to Harvard Graduate School of Education students Bryce Bancroft, Tali Herenstein and Joanna Zimmerman for their work on this project.

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