Online Algebra I is viable alternative for students in rural schools

iStock_000016075406XSmallStudents in rural schools have less access to grade 8 Algebra I than their peers in urban or suburban schools, but the gap can be bridged by providing online courses, according to a new study from the National Center For Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Some 39% of students in rural schools who score in the highest quartile on the grade 5 assessment are not enrolled in Algebra I in grade 8 compared with 25% nationally, according to the study.

Students in 68 schools in Maine and Vermont took an online Algebra I course offered by based in Lincoln, Nebraska as part of the study. A total of 211 students took the online course during the 2007-2008 school year and 222 students served as controls.

Along with online course software, provided an online teacher and the school provided an on-site proctor who would supervise and support students while they were taking the online course. The proctor did not have to be a math teacher and was not required to provide instruction. online teachers had an average of 24 students in their sections.

The material for each topic was presented in an electronic, interactive textbook that consisted of computerized direct instruction; guided practice (“your-turn” problems) and practice problem sets, both with automated feedback; and quizzes and exams that immediately provided students with their scores.

Other activities included demonstrations of content materials; audio clips; interactive applets that present questions and guided solutions; a messaging feature through which students can send and receive messages from the online teachers; and a discussion board on which students can post questions and comments.

The types and amount of interactions between online course participants and their teachers and proctors did not match the initial expectations for the intervention, according to the study. Online teachers spent less time communicating directly with students about the course than expected, and on-site proctors spent more time communicating with students about mathematics than expected.

“Taking this course significantly affected students’ algebra achievement at the end of grade 8 and increased their likelihood of participating in an advanced coursetaking sequence in high school,” the researchers report.

The course had no discernible effects on general mathematics achievement at the end of grade 8.

Participating students varied in the amount of the course content they completed: 43% of online Algebra students completed a full Algebra I course, and 82% completed more than half the course.

Many rural schools across the country are in search of innovative ways to expand their course offering.

“The primary goal of this study was to determine whether broadening access to Algebra I in grade 8 by offering an online course improves students’ knowledge of algebra in the short term, opens doors to more advanced course sequences in the longer term, or both.

“As the use of online courses continues to rise in U.S. schools, future research should continue to study their short- and long-term effects on student coursetaking patterns and achievement in key content areas,” the study says.

“Access to Algebra I: The Effects of Online Mathematics for Grade 8 Students,” by Jessic Heppen et al., National Center For Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Dec. 2011, NCEE 2012-4021.

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