This article is part of the Big Shortcut, an eight-part series exploring the exponential rise in online learning for high school students who have failed traditional classes.
Few of us would argue that hours and hours of consecutive screen time is a good thing—even those of us who write for publications on the internet. It can detrimentally affect sleep cycles; it can affect the cognitive development of young brains; and if not kept in check, excessive screen time can harm children’s physical and mental well-being. But, barring a future in which we mostly listen to our devices rather than stare at them, screen time will likely remain the quintessence of modernity. That’s true, and worrying, for a growing breed of teenagers who are spending more and more of their school time in front of computers because their districts don’t want to teach them any other way.
Each year, millions of students take online classes while attending brick-and-mortar schools. To understand that phenomenon, I recently decided that I would, too. I got in touch with one of the biggest players in the online-education sector, Edgenuity, and asked to be set up as a student. The company assigned me to sixth-grade math and senior-level English. For a number of reasons, this experiment would not exactly be scientific. First off, I’ve just turned 30, work full time, and belong to the segment of the millennial generation that finds Snapchat deeply confusing. Secondly, my “teacher” was Deb Rayow, a former teacher who now works as Edgenuity’s vice president of core curriculum and credit recovery. (To her credit, Rayow let me roam freely within Edgenuity’s program without much intervention or supervision.)
Logging in, I was immediately impressed with the design of Edgenuity’s software: The company’s programs are instinctive and easy to use. Students start in a virtual “lobby,” where courses are listed clearly, and color-coded keys show progress toward completion. There’s also a course-to-date percentage grade, adjusted for how far behind or ahead of completion targets a student is at a given time (it was usually an angry red color for me), and a chat feature for messaging teachers. The sixth-grade math course I took was divided into 12 discrete units, starting with ratios and rates and progressing sequentially through topics like fractions, percentages, and data distribution. The course had two “cumulative exams,” and at the end of each of the 12 units there was a mandatory “unit test.” All in all, I found the course structure clear and the interface clean. The class also had lots of little helpful add-on functions, like a bookmarking mechanism for longer pieces of text, an electronic notepad, and a thesaurus look-up feature.
So it looked nice and functioned smoothly. But I could also relate to the boredom many students told the Teacher Project they experience. In the math class, for example, most instruction was delivered by way of videos running no more than a minute or so at a time, and I became familiar with the friendly face of a balding, bearded teacher who, with the aid of basic animations, explained concepts to me like fractions and ratios. Sure, the math guy was upbeat and his lessons generally easy to follow—and the videos blessedly brief. But I found learning without classmates with whom to share an eye-roll or a teacher to quiz in person about unfamiliar concepts an immediately isolating experience. Oftentimes, I confess, my concentration wavered or I zoned out completely, and I had to replay the short videos a second or third time. Boredom, of course, isn’t unheard of in real classrooms, too; it’s partly why students end up having to take credit recovery online in the first place. But in my experience the lack of human engagement exacerbated the problem, especially for topics like “How J.R.R. Tolkien creates a fantasy world,” which would surely be more fantastic as part of a classroom discussion.
Indeed, the interaction deficit was more of an issue in the senior-level English class than in math. In scope, the class was certainly ambitious: In addition to The Lord of the Rings, it included excerpts from Beowulf; the speeches of Queen Elizabeth I; Hamlet; Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Importance of Being Earnest; and the poems of Rabindranath Tagore, W.B. Yeats, and Dylan Thomas. But the sheer number of texts and concepts presented to students—who were not expected to read beyond short excerpts, like, say, a 10-page excerpt from a 480-page fantasy classic—left me feeling drained. If the object of the course was to round out a high school education’s worth of key concepts underpinning English language, culture, and civilization, it’s hard to imagine this course pulling it off without any class discussion and student-teacher back and forth. Of course, if students had already read some of the full texts in their first attempt at the credit, perhaps the pace and scope made sense. But, for me, it seemed at once too slender (because the excerpts were too short) and too overwhelming (because there were so many of them to get through alone).
While some schools allow students to complete their online recovery credits quickly, my journey through Edgenuity’s software wasn’t so fast. That’s because Rayow had configured the program so I couldn’t “pretest” my way out of modules with which I was already familiar. Many students can test out and thus are able to blitz through an online credit recovery course in a matter of days. The assessments I encountered were also more rigorous than what many students in credit recovery programs say they face: If I had completed my Grade 12 English class, for example (spoiler alert: I didn’t), I would have had to upload a “formal e-mail to persuade an audience” and wait for Rayow to grade it before I could move on. Later graded assignments included writing “an informative essay about a utopia” and writing “an argumentative essay about an ethical issue.” By comparison, many students I interviewed said their assessments in online credit recovery programs were exclusively multiple choice and graded entirely by a computer. Different companies do things differently, and Edgenuity prides itself on the flexibility it offers schools to configure its software how they wish. Clearly, how rigorous schools want to be in implementing credit recovery is left up to them. If schools and teachers want to configure their online credit recovery classes as entirely multiple choice, they can. And many do.
My experience of online credit recovery needs to be taken in context: I hadn’t been near ratios, fractions, or Mary Wollstonecraft in more than a decade, and I didn’t complete either of my two Edgenuity classes. (My future memoir: I Am a Credit Recovery Dropout.) In fairness, I can’t blame the company for this: I struggled to find the motivation to fit in class time around my real job, and I also didn’t have the powerful driver of graduating or getting a good grade. But I also came to appreciate what many students had told me about virtual learning: Compared with regular school, there’s less interaction with teachers, fewer opportunities for creative expression, and little chance to bounce around ideas with classmates. While online learning clearly has some strengths (programs can be tailored to individual needs, for instance), it’s hard to get away from an overarching conclusion: The experience as a whole can be pretty boring and lonely.
Maybe I’m just a needy student—the kind who needs extra, one-to-one help to get over the line. But aren’t we all?