Update on Research Commentary: Computers and Education – Why they choose and how it goes

Update on Research Commentary: Computers and Education – Why they choose and how it goes

I published a short note about this article on October 17, 2014 and had the good fortune of getting in touch with authors Dennis Beck, Anna Egalite, and Robert Maranto today. The authors wanted to discuss my post and talk about their article a bit, which was an idea I jumped on because I believe this work about online learning is important and we need to have these conversations moving forward.

If you notice in my previous post, I provided two main critiques of the original study (one of which, in hindsight, I did not articulate very well). But before I discuss the paper again I want to be very clear that even though I had a few questions about the article I think the work is strong. The primary reason I originally posted about it was because it provides valuable research that needs to be shared, and I hope to see more work like this emerging in the online learning field soon.

To summarize what the authors did, they looked at students in a cyber charter school and essentially hypothesized that special education students would enroll for very specific reasons and seek out a cyber environment for these reasons more so than general education students would. Through surveys the authors indeed found this to be the case. Special education students joined cyber programs because they perceived the teaching and learning more beneficial and found the environment safer (among other reasons).

In my previous post I stated two critiques, which is partially what the authors and I talked about on Friday. My first question was about selection bias. The authors only had access to those who stayed at the cyber schools, so this could have skewed the results into finding more satisfied students because perhaps if they weren’t satisfied they would have left. However, in our conversation we did talk about the notion of turnover in cyber charter schools and Prof. Beck noted that only talking about turnover in a negative light might be misleading. He said that some students move into an out of cyber charter schools because they are using the schools as an emergency, short-term schooling option. For example, if a child gets sick or a young teen gets pregnant, they may use a cyber charter school in order to not get behind in their school work. So, he said, just because a student left the cyber charter school does not mean that he or she had a negative experience.

Another way the authors got at the issue of satisfaction and accounted for how the special education students perceived quality compared to general education students was to look at what they called “relative satisfaction.” The authors used this relative satisfaction metric to get at their research questions, which was the best strategy they could have used in this case.  However, my only question about relative satisfaction (and re-reading my previous post I did not articulate it well) was essentially my second critique: Relative satisfaction would tell us even more if we had a better way of understanding what relative satisfaction means and what a typical relative satisfaction number is like across school environments. What are the relative satisfaction rates typically at a traditional school? Are special education students more relatively satisfied at a traditional school than general education students? And is this proportion at a cyber charter school different?

We talked about this point a bit and I think we kind of agreed that this metric “relative satisfaction” would be an interesting one to apply to a traditional school elsewhere. The reason for this would be to compare how relative satisfaction is for the traditional school special education/general education relationship (let’s call this relative relationship A) to a cyber charter school special education/general education relationship (call this relative relationship B). In other words, how does relative relationship A compare with relative relationship B? Again, the authors did not have access to traditional schools in the study, only cyber charter schools. Thus, my question is more of a way to build on the work and think about a next step. I would not say that I see this as a major lapse in this current paper research; rather, perhaps where it could go moving forward.

Ultimately, the study brings up a really interesting an important point: If special education students are not faring well in a traditional environment, they might find a better option in online learning. This is an interesting idea and should be explored more. Part of it, I am sure, will boil down to the nature of the student’s special education status. I can certainly envision a fulltime online program that would help students in particular situations that a traditional school could not. I could also envision the inverse.

Other than these issues, the authors and I discussed the nature of cyber schooling in general. They talked about some of their upcoming work, which included considerations of school climate and how they relate to students choosing cyber charter schools. We discussed a variable about bullying and how that seemed to prominently play into the decisions of parents, especially (and interestingly) at rural schools. So, again, I’d like to thank the authors for chatting with me and I hope to see more of their work in the future.

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