103,583 "Core-Course Submissions
(423 per day)
6,275 “RC8” Materials Received
(26 per day)
Most containing multiple issues In cases where a clear decision cannot be made, the NCAA Eligibility Center flags the course title with the “RC8” code, which means the course is not actually denied but is “on hold” until course information is submitted.
647 Grading Scale Changes
(2-3 per day)
314 New Schools reviewed
(1.25 per day)
7,048 “Other” Actions Taken
(Pin resets, district situations, bad e-mail letters, update requests, review questionnaires) (28.75 per day)
In total: Roughly 481.5 issues processed daily.
(This amounts to 64.2 issues per staff member.)
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By Gary Brown
In the last decade, an explosion of alternative methods of education delivery has added for-profit providers of online curricula and state-funded virtual schools to the standard brick-and-mortar high schools in the secondary education landscape.
Thirty-two states have statewide virtual schools offering supplemental courses (four already require an online experience for graduation), and 70 percent of school districts in the United States had one or more students enrolled in a fully online course in 2008-09. In addition, more universities are offering K-12 courses online now, including Stanford and Johns Hopkins.
By 2019, roughly 50 percent of high school courses could be delivered online. And by as soon as 2013, about 20 percent to 25 percent of high school students will have taken at least some online courses during their high school careers.
Because prospective student-athletes are among those trending that way, officials are working overtime to evaluate which of these online alternatives meet NCAA legislative parameters.
Staff members at the NCAA Eligibility Center already receive more than 103,500 core-course submissions annually (about 420 per day). Many of those come with their own complexities, and now the online alternatives add to them. Lisa Mills, the director of high school review at the Eligibility Center, said sleuthing the origins of those courses is necessary to determine whether the prospects and their advisors are using various course opportunities for eligibility purposes more than academic preparedness. Sometimes, courses used for credit recovery may be completed in a compressed time frame and may not include much interaction between the student and the instructor. Prospects who are short a core course or two as they approach high school graduation often use these options to stay eligible.
Such circumstances raise flags with Mills’ staff, just as some courses from traditional high schools do in the normal review of transcripts. But the online component can be more complicated because of the varied nature of programs, learning platforms, teacher interaction models and transcript transparency.
To be sure, Mills said, just because materials are online doesn’t mean they are substandard. Many providers of online curriculum produce better educational products than the brick-and-mortar schools, she said.
But there are no national standards for certifying high school curricula, including online courses. That is further complicated by schools that may modify the materials they purchase from an online curriculum provider. A course that looks one way at the point of sale may change dramatically once students actually take it. Providers can also package coursework in a way that the courses may appear to meet NCAA core-course legislation, but after closer evaluation, may not have the curriculum content or learning/teaching dynamic that satisfies the legislation.
“This becomes a problem for admissions personnel who may be misled by the label of the course on the transcript,” Mills said. “The resulting casualty is the prospective student-athlete who has taken a ‘quick-fix’ course to become eligible and then doesn’t do well on the placement test in college. Suddenly that student needs more remedial work than the school anticipated.”
The crack in the system has the potential to shortchange the prospect – and the college – in the end. Colleges tend to blame the secondary schools for this shortcoming, but admissions officers may also not be familiar enough with the complexities of online education to conduct a thorough transcript review.
“The Eligibility Center raising these concerns isn’t meant as a roadblock,” said Kevin Lennon, who as vice president of academic and membership affairs has ultimate oversight of Eligibility Center operations. “It’s their job to act in the best interests of students getting a sound education. Thus, they are responsible for honoring these warning flags in their own review.
“The NCAA membership needs to understand that the Eligibility Center is all about having prospects enter NCAA institutions academically prepared. This is not about the fastest way to achieve eligibility, but the best way.”
The NCAA’s Steve Clar, who staffs the NCAA Student Records Review Committee, said the changes are emerging in brick-and-mortar schools, too. More nontraditional students are driving a shift in how learning is achieved, whether it be night school, alternative education or online.
“Some people talk about a ‘blended environment’ that involves listening to instruction and applying online curricula, as well,” Clar said. “The resulting challenge for the NCAA High School Review Committee is to develop overarching principles that allow NCAA staff and members to judge whether these materials meet core-course standards. For example, does there have to be an instructor, or is it OK for the student to be the ‘driver’ of the course?
“We have to develop some principles of academic soundness.”
Division I made progress along those lines this spring when it adopted legislation requiring nontraditional courses (including online, virtual, independent study, correspondence and software-based credit recovery courses) to include regular access and interaction between an instructor and student for purposes of teaching, evaluating and providing assistance to the student throughout the course.
The legislation (Proposal No. 2009-64) originated from the Division I Academic Cabinet after consultation with the NCAA Student Records Review Committee and NCAA High School Review Committee. It helps ensure that acceptable nontraditional courses allow students to demonstrate that their work was completed in a manner consistent with the intent and design of the core-course curriculum requirements.
The interaction between teacher and student may include telephone conversations, electronic mail, instant messaging and other forms of electronic communication between the student and instructor. That interaction should include feedback on assignments and course assessments by the instructor to the student, and the opportunity for the instructor to provide individual instruction to the student.
Even if the student does not request that interaction, the course will not be approved unless it is designed to require it.
The legislation also reduces the opportunities for prospects to complete courses in a condensed time frame. While the legislation does not prescribe a period in which a nontraditional course must be completed, the entity offering the course must establish a defined time for completion of the course.
Ramifications of the new rules emerged in May when the NCAA determined that nontraditional courses from BYU Independent Study and American School (two of the programs most frequently used by prospective student-athletes) did not meet the parameters of this new legislation. The Eligibility Center will continue to review nontraditional programs and courses to determine whether such courses pass legislative muster.
The Division II Presidents Council backed similar legislation for Division II in June. Delegates will vote on that at the 2011 NCAA Convention.
The discussion in Division II gained momentum when the Academic Requirements Committee heard from the Eligibility Center about a case involving a prospect from a Minnesota high school whose transcript included coursework from “Minnesota Virtual Online.”
The case study illustrated the sometimes complex nature of how programs work and how the source of a course on a transcript may be difficult to determine.
To start with, staff managed to find a College Board code for Minnesota Virtual Academy High School but not for Minnesota Virtual Online. The subsequent transcript they requested arrived from “Minnesota Transitions School” with a subheading of “Minnesota Virtual High School.”
The search continued when it was discovered that Minnesota Transitions School shared an address with “Minnesota Transitions Tech High School.” In the file for the latter, a note from the principal said that the name had changed to “MTS Minnesota Connections Academy.” That complicated matters further, since MTS Minnesota Connections Academy is one of several “Connection Academies” throughout the country that offer online curricula in a standardized format.
A Web search uncovered that Minnesota Transitions School is a K-12 charter program offering a number of educational options, including Minnesota Virtual High School and MTS Minnesota Connections Academy. Minnesota Virtual High School had used customizable online curricula provided by an Oklahoma City-based company called Advanced Academics. Because that content was customizable, the Eligibility Center staff had to request an end-of-course summary.
In all, the review involved seven different schools and an online provider, translating into hours of additional labor to certify the course.
The case study astounded the Division II Academic Requirements Committee, which realized the complexity of online coursework while acknowledging that a balance of schools are actually trying to help a more diverse population of young people obtain an education.
The problem, as Paul Leidig, ARC chair and Grand Valley State faculty athletics representative, pointed out, “is separating the bad actors in this theater from people and programs that are actually trying to help students.”
That kind of discussion carried over to the Student Records Review Committee meeting this spring during which members wrestled with the issue of what constitutes “academic soundness” when it comes to online curricula.
The primary question was whether there was a level of course completion that would not be considered academically sound regardless of the level of coursework provided. In other words, if the materials presented appear to have been impossible to achieve (too much work in too little time), is that a trigger for review, or does the legitimacy of the material presented overcome the suspicion?
The committee heard from Allison Powell, the vice president at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning
(iNACOL), who warned about putting higher expectations on “cyber” students than those from brick-and-mortar schools, who may be less academically prepared than the students coming from online curricula.
“It may depend on what courses rather than the number,” she cited as an example. “If the prospect takes four different math courses in one year, then that would raise a flag. But if they provide materials that show actual work and completion of those courses, do you deny it? Perhaps the presumption is that there would need to be a lot of explaining in that case, but it could be acceptable.”
The NCAA’s Clar said those materials need to be more exhaustive than test scores.
“Taking the exams and getting credit isn’t enough,” he said. “We need to know the breadth of the course, the work involved during the course and the completed assignments. We need to tell our membership, coaches and actual providers more detail about what materials these prospective student-athletes need to present.”
In the end, the committee proposed some guiding principles for the Eligibility Center staff to use when evaluating online curricula. First, and perhaps most important, the course must include instruction by the course instructor, just as it was determined in the legislation Division I adopted. The course also should be completed in its entirety and in an appropriate time. The prospect’s completion of the course should be supported by examples of finished coursework, evidencing the required breadth of work involved in course completion (as well as some sort of documentation from the instructor).
While that may be a start, it doesn’t alleviate the need for some intuition when evaluating these courses. It’s not like instant replay in football – some objectivity is required. And that will continue to be called into question as the education landscape keeps morphing and prospects in it keep chasing athletics eligibility however they can.
That’s what keeps iNACOL CEO Susan Patrick up at night. She knows that schools dealing with budget cuts and teacher shortages may be easily influenced by a salesperson for “computer-based instruction.” But that’s far different from online curricula, Patrick said.
Quality online courses are teacher-led and teacher-facilitated and involve teachers assessing authentic student work (projects, writing assignments, discussion-board postings). In online courses, Patrick said, teachers often get to know their students better than in a face-to-face setting because there is a heavier emphasis on writing, and these students are writing about things that they may not necessarily be raising their hand to talk about in class.
“So this idea of ‘computer-based instruction’ is what I think of as stand-alone software,” Patrick said. “Some of it is good at using forms of artificial intelligence to map out what a student is or is not competent in. Some of it is very poorly designed, just like a lot of e-work course training is poorly designed – in allowing a student to simply click on a mouse three times and move on to the next lesson.
“If a district says that can be used for credit recovery, that’s its choice as to what products and programs it allows within state standards, but there’s not a lot of literature talking about the continuum of quality.”
Patrick acknowledged that the NCAA is faced with the most challenging environment, since prospects often have so much on the line, and many are in that gray area of eligibility.
“The NCAA is seeing more cases of abuse than anyone else,” Patrick said.
The Eligibility Center’s Mills knows that firsthand, but she said the staff there and the NCAA national office staff charged with determining what passes when it comes to core courses are coming to grips with an ever-changing educational environment at the secondary level.
“There’s a big difference between quality online education and a quick fix or credit recovery programs,” Mills said. “The proliferation of online delivery adds complexity in the review process, and there is potential for skirting ethics or even committing fraud. Division I’s legislative action at least helped ease the complexity of review, but you can’t just legislate against online learning.
“The challenge is to separate the quality providers from the quick-fix folks. Is it good technology or a quick fix? We are continually developing the metrics to answer that question.”