E-Learning | Research

Online Classes Accelerate Math for Middle Schoolers, Research Finds

Eighth-graders who take an online Algebra I course score higher on end-of-year algebra assessments than other students who take the standard instructor-led math program offered by their schools and are twice as likely to follow an advanced course sequence in high school as their peers. Those results came out of a multi-year study done in 68 mostly rural schools in Maine and Vermont and could influence decisions by more middle schools to begin offering Algebra I classes.

The research was conducted by a team at Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI), one of 10 laboratories funded through the Institute of Education Sciences at the United States Department of Education to perform research for informing policies and educational practices in the area of improving student achievement.

As described in "Access to Algebra I: The Effects of Online Mathematics for Grade 8 Students," a team of eight researchers randomly assigned a group of volunteer schools in both states to offer either an online Algebra I course to their "algebra-ready" students during the 2008-2009 school year or to serve as a control school by offering their standard math curriculum. At the end of the school year, the researchers collected results of an algebra achievement test and a general math achievement test for each of the 440 students who participated.

In spring 2009 they also collected information from the students about what high schools they planned to attend and which math classes they planned to take. Then the researchers followed them into high school to collect additional data, including which ninth grade math classes they took and what grades they earned and what 10th grade classes they were enrolled in.

"We used that information to determine whether students were participating in an advanced course sequence or not, which was really a proxy for a successful completion of Algebra II by 10th grade, which has been shown in prior research to indicate the likelihood of calculus by the end of high school," explained lead author Jessica Heppen in a short video on the project.

The online course used in the study was provided by Class.com. Students would take the online courses on devices at the back of the classroom during regular math classes. An online instructor would communicate with students via online messages, and students would receive immediate feedback via automated scoring on problem sets and quizzes. Schools would also provide proctors--usually the teacher of the general math class--to support students taking the online course.

The Maine schools made use of the state's one-to-one laptop initiative. Vermont's students used computers provided on a cart or in a lab.

The experiment focused especially on rural schools for a reason. As the researchers pointed out, many public middle schools in rural areas are just small enough to lack the funding, staffing, or enrollment to offer Algebra I to their algebra-ready eighth graders.

"This study is really about access and equity in learning opportunities," said co-principal investigator Peggy Clements. "Small rural schools may not have the resources to offer a face-to-face Algebra I course to the few students ready for it. Ordinarily, these kids would begin high school a step behind peers whose schools did offer Algebra I."

The study found that those algebra-ready students who took the online course:

  • Scored considerably higher on the end-of-year algebra assessment than the control group;
  • Were twice as likely to follow an advanced course sequence in high school than peers in the control group; and
  • Didn't experience negative side effects on their end-of-year general math achievement, which is commonly tested on state assessments.

The study also reported that pulling out those students to take the course online didn't negatively affect their non-algebra-ready peers who remained in the regular math class.

"The research makes a compelling case for extending access to an online version of Algebra I in schools that otherwise do not typically offer the course," said Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca, a member of REL-NEI's governing board.

However, warned Clements, the study doesn't answer every question. "What we don't know from this particular study is: What are the particular practices that surround students taking the online course that make it more likely that they're successful or even more successful than we saw in this study? Under what circumstances do they work? For what purposes do they work? And what kind of support do students need?"

In spite of those questions, added Heppen, when faced with a decision to broaden or expand access to this particular course in middle school, "the answer is yes."

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