21st Century Curriculum | November 2013 Digital Edition

How Online GED Prep Can Help Dropouts

Anonymity and the option to work at their own pace attracts students who failed to thrive in a traditional academic setting.

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's November 2013 digital edition.

As soon as the St. Cloud Area School District (MN) set up its online GED prep courses in 2009, the district began seeing unexpected positive impact. Not only were high school dropouts who previously showed no interest in classroom GED courses signing up, but those who failed to meet the district's online entry requirements were taking the next step and registering for the traditional GED prep offering. A third group of students tried the web-based approach, found it difficult, and signed up for the traditional coursework instead.

Scott Wallner, the assistant community education director for the district, which includes two high schools, says, "Eventually we get them through the door as a result of the online GED course. The web provides a level of anonymity that these students like." To use St. Cloud Area SD's online GED prep tool, students have to take a test, score at an eighth-grade level, and demonstrate computer proficiency. Wallner says roughly 20 percent of students who don't finish high school in the district are eligible to use the web-based offering. He attributes the low percentage to a high number of ESOL students in the area.

St. Cloud Area SD, which runs a GED testing site and provides both GED prep and ESOL courses, set up its online offering after the Minnesota Department of Education contracted with a GED preparation software developer to roll out adult basic education across the state. The online platform, i-Pathways, allows adult learners to work through modules at their own pace and on their own computers.

"It prepares them for all five sections of the GED test," Wallner explains, "and includes some useful tools for both the student and for us to monitor their progress." After four years of administering the program, Wallner says it's most useful for adults who are employed full-time and/or who have young children and can't commit to attending class on a scheduled basis. "It's good for individuals who have already built up a good educational base," he says, "and who score in the 11th- to 12th-grade range on the intake proficiency test."

Catching Students on the Web
As education as a whole moves more and more onto the web, it makes sense for schools to extend their distance learning offerings to reach those learners who didn't complete high school, but who want to earn their GEDs. And while in-person GED exams remain a mandatory requirement, a number of districts nationwide have started offering the students the option to do their prep work on their own time, using their own computers or tablets.

Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, FL, offers an online GED prep offering through Desire2Learn. Kevin Stokes, chief GED examiner for the district, says the solution was rolled out about four years ago to echo the course content already being presented to adult learners at five technical center sites. The district develops and provides the GED prep content, says Stokes, and Desire2Learn serves as the delivery method for the material.

The system in place at Stokes' district includes measures for progress tracking and student accountability, two elements he says are particularly important when working with adult learners who didn't complete their traditional educations. Students are also required to complete assignments on a regular basis. Without this added level of discipline, he says, "it's too easy for students to get two to three weeks behind and wind up giving up on the course."

To enroll in Orange County's web-based GED prep, students must be 16 or older and must already have withdrawn from their most recent high school. "You can't enter adult education programs in Florida while you are in K-12, unless you are in dual enrollment," Stokes explains. Students aged 16 or 17 must also write a one-page hardship letter explaining why they aren't attending and graduating from high school. "We evaluate that rationale," says Stokes, "and if it's valid we allow the minor student to enroll in the online or face-to-face class."

Meeting the Challenges
While getting adult students to rethink their educational decisions and prepare for the GED online and in the privacy of their own homes may sound straightforward enough, the districts that are doing it say the scenario does present some challenges. Access to technology and enough bandwidth to run the courses on their computers are two hurdles that students deal with, says Stokes. Keeping students on task is another obstacle, particularly when it comes to individuals who--for whatever reason--didn't follow through with their high school education on the first time around.

"Enrollees in the online prep course must finish a certain number of assignments per week," says Stokes. To help make sure that happens, Orange County Public Schools also offers hybrid options that require students to attend regular, in-person meetings with teachers or otherwise maintain contact with instructors and/or other students. "In the online environment, the student-teacher relationship remains important," says Stokes. "That's why we propose a number of face-to-face meetings during the span of the GED coursework."

Wallner says the online GED prep experience can derail quickly when districts wrongly assume that everyone in their 20s can use a computer and the internet proficiently. "From my experience, this assumption is completely wrong," says Wallner. "Some adult students don't even have computers or internet access at home. Thinking that they do--and that they'll do well on their own working online--is a big mistake." (For more information on accessibility to technology, see the recent Campus Technology article, "When Students Can't Compute.")

Like the students enrolled in the courses, the district has needed some help. Wallner worked with the district's existing staff and a statewide consortium of 343 adult education programs to set up and run the online GED prep course. To get the job done, St. Cloud Area SD partners with about 20 different schools in its region and jointly shares an instructor among those programs. To other districts looking to set up a similar program, Wallner says, "Find other schools, districts, and adult learning centers to pair up with and share resources with."


Online + Face-to-Face = GED Success

The idea of completing GED prep courses 100 percent online and without much outside intervention may be appealing to some students, but others need a more forceful nudge to get them to finish their work. In most cases, old-fashioned face-to-face interactions can serve as the perfect blended solution for districts that want to raise GED prep completion and test success rates.

It just comes down to basic human psychology, says Howard A. Liebman, superintendent of schools for Pensacola, FL-based Smart Horizons Career Online Education, which operates online AdvancED/SACS accredited high school programs nationwide. "100 percent of our students have encountered educational trauma," Liebman says, "which means 70 percent of them will respond with fight or flight--the brain's reaction to trauma."

To get that 70 percent back on track and engaged with GED learning in the online environment, Liebman says districts should consider a hybrid approach that includes both web-based course delivery and some face-to-face interactions with instructors. And while similar approaches are being used with traditional K-12 online learning, Liebman says it's particularly critical for students who have become disengaged from the educational system.

Liebman expects use of this model to grow in adult education, adding, "The core academic curriculum instruction can take place in an online asynchronous environment, but there should also be a face-to-face coaching component."

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