Fast. Isolating. Superficial.

What class is like for the millions of high-schoolers now taking courses online.

Kellan Jett

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.

After she failed English her junior year at Riverbend High School in Spotsylvania, Virginia, 17-year-old Amelia Kreck had to retake the class. It took her two days.

In the classroom, Amelia had struggled with essay writing. But the online course her school directed her to take as a replacement had no essays. Nor did Amelia have to read any books in their entirety. Unsurprisingly, she says, she never had to think very hard. That’s because she skipped out of most units through a series of “pretests” at the start, which she says contained basic grammar questions as well as some short readings followed by multiple-choice sections.

Amelia says she enjoyed some of the readings in the online version of the class, created by for-profit education company Edgenuity, including excerpts from Freakonomics and the writings of the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. She also appreciated the flexibility to work from home—until after midnight on one of the two days it took here to recover her credit. But “there was a big component of the original class that was missing from credit recovery,” she says. “Most of it was on the shallow side.” She finished so quickly, she says, that “I didn’t improve in the areas that needed improvement.”

Across the country over the past decade, millions of students like Amelia have been retaking classes online as their school districts have tried to boost high school graduation rates and keep struggling students on track. Some researchers and teachers argue the trend fundamentally undermines the integrity of a high school diploma while supporters, including scores of school administrators and politicians, counter that online learning better equips students for an increasingly virtual world and gives more students the opportunity to graduate. Yet apart from a few limited, highly abstract research studies, virtually nothing is known about the student experience in these controversial classes, which have been proliferating rapidly. Since the fall, the Teacher Project has interviewed dozens of students, almost all of whom echoed Amelia’s points: They enjoy learning on their own schedules and find the online classes to be fun and flexible in a way that traditional classes often are not. But the students also find the experience to be isolating, the content shockingly superficial, and the online curricula incredibly easy to game through quick Google searches—or even, in several cases, by paying friends to do all the work. On Twitter, students in credit recovery frequently vent about the boredom and frustration: “can I just scam my way out of credit recovery,” one pleaded in November; “my ass keep trynna do this credit recovery an fallin asleep 😂,” tweeted another student in January. Without extra support from their schools, students all too often feel cheated by online courses—even the students who don’t mind cutting some corners themselves.

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Administrators at Chicago’s Sullivan High School were drawn to online credit recovery for the same reason most schools are. It was “trying to increase the graduation rate,” Principal Chad Adams told me. But Adams also believes that online courses, while far from perfect, provide a more meaningful option than night school at Sullivan, which he scrapped in 2012. “It was a bit of a joke,” he says. Sullivan is a diverse school, where 39 percent of students enrolled in 2016 had “limited” abilities in English and 95 percent were from low-income backgrounds. Like many schools in Chicago, Sullivan has recently pulled off an impressive turnaround in graduation rates: Five years ago, only 45 percent of freshmen were graduating within five years; in 2016, the rate had jumped to 64 percent. The turnaround has been made possible, at least in part, thanks to a constellation of online credit recovery classes. This past fall, to cater to its approximately 25 online students who are taking a course designed by the company Apex, Sullivan ran two virtual school classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. In-class attendance was optional, so about half the virtual learners completed their online class work at home.

When I visited one of these classes on a Thursday evening in November, students trickled in and out of the fluorescently lit classroom in ones and twos. Some sat engrossed in the computers in front of them, headphones in, fingers flickering across stiffened black keyboards. Others were bored: goofing around, checking Snapchat, drifting out to the corridor outside, or just staring blankly into space.

Kevin Graves, 18, likes online courses largely for the same reasons as his administrators: The courses are more entertaining than watching night-school videos, and there’s more freedom, too. And, even more important, online credit recovery makes it easier to graduate. Kevin, a senior, transferred from John Hope College Prep High School on Chicago’s South Side at the end of his sophomore year because he wanted to study accounting at college and heard Sullivan offered more classes on business and economics. When he arrived, Kevin lacked enough credits to graduate on time, so Elizabeth Bieze, the guidance counselor who oversees the virtual lab, suggested he choose a subject that would afford him an easy credit. Kevin opted for online music appreciation.

On this Thursday, Kevin learned about the human ear. The course module contained four short videos and a series of multiple-choice quizzes. There were some short-answer sections, and a section about notating music, for which Kevin consulted an app from the online course provider Apex on his iPhone. The videos in the module generally featured teachers talking to the camera but also included diagrams and short animations. Kevin said he was impressed that the class focused on more than music theory. “It’s going to teach me about sound, like how you hear it, the structure of the ear,” he explained. He liked the videos and the quizzes, and the fact that the Apex course lets him closely track his progress through the class. Overall, Kevin finds online learning quick and easy, and likes that he can do it from home, on the train, or at school.

Bieze says she generally avoids having students recover credit for reading-based subjects like English online because that means they miss out on crucial discussion and writing components. (Some online curricula require students to write essays while others rely solely, or mostly, on multiple-choice and short-answer tests.) But Bieze is more comfortable using online credit recovery classes for Spanish, music, art appreciation, or math. She adds that it’s not atypical for students to recover credits for yearlong classes in under a week. “They do really well in the pretest, they get to skip a bunch of stuff, and they just take the final exam,” she says. “It has helped our graduation rate immensely.”

Amelia, at Riverbend in Virginia, says her online class had breadth, if not depth. The shorter readings allowed for more diversity in texts—like studying parts of Trifles, a one-act play by Susan Glaspell, as well as news articles documenting the actual murder investigation that provided the rough plot for the play. “I actually found the material for this a lot more interesting and enjoyable,” she says.

Even the most jaded students sometimes bemoan the lack of teacher interaction in many online courses. Amelia, for instance, says a teacher with no expertise in English was on hand to help until the end of the school day. But it “didn’t seem like actual teaching so much as giving the answer needed to score well on the test,” she says.

That isolation is a recurrent theme in tweets from high school students taking credit recovery. A cynic might remark the arc of their Twitter messages neatly approximates the five stages of grief: There are tweets of denial (“I hate this school, all of a sudden I have to take credit recovery”); anger (“this credit recovery I have to do for school is bullshit”); bargaining (“If anyone is good at algebra 2 lmk & I’ll pay you 100 dollars to do my credit recovery”); depression (“I got hella credit recovery class 😒  I shoulda went to school more last year”); and some begrudging acceptance (“I’ve lasted four years of high school. I think I can last one day of credit recovery”). And sometimes things just get weird. (“Someone definitely brought their cat into credit recovery #InHereForAReason.”)

Back in the real world, student Nicolas Rodriguez said his online experience suffered from a lack of meaningful interaction with a teacher. Nicolas, who graduated from a charter school called Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy in Chicago, repeated sophomore English online during the summer and fall of 2015. There was no pretest option allowing him to test out of several units, so he spent several weeks working on the course, off and on. Nicolas also remembers writing two short essays that were graded remotely by an instructor whom he never met.

But the readings were all exceptionally short—nothing longer than 15 to 20 paragraphs, Nicolas says. And he missed the discussion, feedback, and commentary that a good teacher provides. “It was just read, answer questions, read, answer questions,” he says. “I wasn’t being taught anything. … I honestly don’t think it was the same thing as teaching.” Without the inducement of a diploma, he doubts he would have survived the tedium and made it through the class.

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As with any kind of instruction, some students taking online credit recovery are tempted to cheat—or at least flirt with doing so. “Anyone wanna do a math credit recovery for me I’ll pay you,” read one tweet posted by a student in Erie, Pennsylvania, in August. “If anyone wants to go online and do my chemistry credit recovery I’d be more than happy to give you my username and password,” wrote another student in Arkansas. Naturally, online learning companies like Edgenuity and Apex insist that most don’t actually follow through and that the chatter is mostly empty boasting.

That may be so, but I didn’t have too much trouble finding students online who insisted they had cheated without being caught. One of them, Joseph, who is a 17-year-old senior at a Long Island high school in New York, said his online English class was uninspiring, so he paid a buddy $200 to complete it. “I found a loophole,” he says. (Joseph asked that his last name and school not be included; he was interviewed for this piece via Twitter.)

Joseph told me that he had failed both sophomore English and U.S. history when he took the traditional classes. Although he muddled through the online makeup history course over the summer, he resented having to retake the English one, which he thought he should have passed the first time around. His friend, an honors English student, wanted the extra money for a baseball camp. “He logs in with my information and headers his essays with my name and nobody knows the difference,” Joseph says. He also didn’t feel like the online courses were worth the effort. “It doesn’t teach you,” he says, noting that “random” substitute teachers oversee dozens of students in the computer labs where students take the classes. Joseph did complete the U.S. history class on his own, which he said incorporated most of the same topics covered in the traditional class, including the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the civil rights era—“all that jazz,” he says. At Sullivan, Elizabeth Bieze says students sign a code of conduct statement at the beginning of class, pledging not to cheat. But she admits they have ample opportunity, even when she’s around. I’m “not going to be peering over everybody’s shoulder the whole time,” she says.

Deborah Rayow, the vice president of core curriculum and credit recovery at Edgenuity, one of the larger providers, says her company monitors IP addresses, takes screenshots from Twitter, and reports suspicious activity to principals and administrators. She estimates it reports only about a dozen students for cheating each year. “A lot of kids use their real names and do this, so they’re very easy to track down,” she says. She adds that Edgenuity has been striving to make its curriculum more engaging: Ten years ago, she says, companies like hers delivered their credit recovery classes in the form of long videos of teachers lecturing, but nowadays they do things differently. “We have short videos, that then pause for students to do something [like a multiple-choice quiz], and they then get appropriate feedback and instruction,” she explains. “But it’s not a video game; this is still school.”

Above all else, the students’ stories show that what matters most when it comes to online education is how well—or how poorly—individual schools implement the programs. For schools that eliminate or reduce the “pretest” option, provide extensive support to students (and extra assignments when necessary), and crack down aggressively on cheating, virtual credit recovery can provide a meaningful alternative for students. For those that “plug and play,” as one administrator put it (plugging kids in front of a computer, hitting play on a course, and leaving them to their own devices), online credit recovery can quickly become a sham. Many schools, including Sullivan, appear to fall somewhere between these two extremes. But even in schools occupying the middle ground, disengagement can be rampant, and cheating too easy.

As the sun set outside the classroom at Sullivan one evening, Wilomtja Tjuma, a senior, discussed the pros and cons of the online class he was taking in Spanish. The 17-year-old moved to the United States 3½ years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the teachers at his Kinshasa school routinely hit the students. He wants to go to college and eventually start a business with his brother designing and sewing clothes. Wilomtja appreciates that he can sign in anytime, anywhere when taking an online class. “I can log in even on my phone,” he says. It is also useful for him to use a translation function to move between Spanish and his native Swahili, rather than struggling through with a class aimed at native English speakers. “Every time when I don’t know something, I contact my Spanish teacher and she helps me out, or I just go to the internet,” he says. “It’s actually fun. Sometimes at home when I’m bored, I just open my computer and start doing it.”

On this particular Thursday, though, Wilomtja was not learning much: He had made so much progress on his own that he had been locked out of the course. Leaning over him as he sat at his computer, Bieze tried to find a way for Wilomtja to keep going but in the end was not successful. Wilomtja decided to go home. “I guess I did too much work,” he laughed, then making an observation that seems to characterize much of the student response to online credit recovery: “Maybe you do need the teacher to help you go forward.”