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Nellie Mae Education Foundation awards grant to UMass Donahue Institute researchers to study impact of online courses in schools with high dropout rates.

Researchers in the UMass Donahue Institute's Applied Research and Program Evaluation group were awarded $354,000 from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to study whether online courses used for credit recovery and acceleration, two approaches to helping  high-risk students obtain credits required for graduation, sufficiently prepare students for post-secondary education and career settings. The study will be integrated with the Institute's ongoing evaluation activities for MassGrad, a federally funded Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education initiative directed at dropout prevention, intervention, and recovery.

"This grant will help educators and policy makers determine if online courses are an effective resource for high school students who are at high risk of dropping out," says Eliot Levine, the senior research manager who will lead the study. "The research will also identify strategies that school personnel utilize to implement online courses successfully."

Despite the rapid rise in the use of online courses—more than 1.8 million public school students were enrolled in 2010––there are few rigorous studies looking at their effectiveness. Online courses could prove to be an effective resource for students at risk of dropping out, because they have the potential to remove barriers such as inflexible schedules and fixed course locations, while offering more individualization than traditional classroom curriculums.

The research, a two-year study of 19 Massachusetts high schools with above-average dropout rates, will investigate how participation in online courses impacts graduation and dropout rates, scores on the Massachusetts state exams (MCAS), and Advanced Placement course and exam outcomes. In addition, the researchers will interview school personnel, conduct focus groups with students, and observe traditional and online credit recovery courses.

The study's findings will be compiled into a yearly research brief targeted to school personnel who work directly with students enrolled in competency-based online courses for credit recovery and acceleration, as well as a final report targeted to district and state-level policy makers.

The research is intended to help the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in its efforts toward stimulating change in public education systems across New England, and will be part of a growing body of knowledge that uses research to strengthen the ability of practitioners and policymakers to engage students in acquiring the skills and knowledge needed for success in college, career, and civic life.

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