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Do Online Courses Help or Hinder English Language Learners' Experience With Math Credit Recovery?

By Boris Costa-Guerra, Leslie Costa-Guerra / March 2015

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As online learning enrollments continue to grow, the conversation has shifted from the value of online learning to what tools students should be using and in what capacity [1]. Online learning has not only enhanced the efficiency of teaching, but it has also changed the traditional in-classroom model of learning, especially in mathematics. Online teaching programs in mathematics, with their virtual classrooms, are becoming more and more popular because students can access instruction and practice materials wherever Internet access is available [2]. Students now have a long list of choices when it comes to learning math online: full-time, for-profit virtual schools; state-sponsored virtual schools; supplemental online learning courses; and a hybrid of online learning material coupled with face-to-face instruction [3]. The benefits of having a variety of options are immense and allow schools to meet the needs of individual learners no matter where they are; however, are all of the outcomes from online learning positive? How is online learning effective for English language learners (ELLs) in mathematics?

Literature Review

Just as there are benefits there are also challenges associated with online learning [1]. Some studies show how a lack of personal interaction with the teacher can negatively affect student motivation [4]. Motivation and pressure to succeed in school are considered two factors impacting high-school student learning [5]. Along with the issues of motivation and pressure, come issues of access and skill levels. Barbour and Reeves stated when it comes to online learning,

[T]he benefits associated with virtual schooling are expanding educational access, providing high-quality learning opportunities, improving student outcomes and skills, allowing for educational choice, and achieving administrative efficiency. However, the research to support these conjectures is limited at best. The challenges associated with virtual schooling include the conclusion that the only students typically successful in online learning environments are those who have independent orientations towards learning, highly motivated by intrinsic sources, and have strong time management, literacy, and technology skills [6].

Web-based online learning education research and development now focuses on the inclusion of new technological features and the exploration of software standards; however, far less effort has been dedicated to finding solutions to psychopedagogical problems in this new educational category [7]. In other words, many of today's online learning environments are structurally appropriate, but are not considering the teaching aspect of interaction for students. Support is a key piece to online learning courses. One way to support students using online learning tools is through mentorship. Online learning mentors are either students or other persons who have had the experience of using an online learning tool and can help guide new users through the process [8].

The research suggests ELL students using online learning need even more support than their peers. According to de la Varre, Keane, and Irvin online learning has focused on the aspect of making the programs easy to navigate, but often times, online learning courses fail to address individual needs [9]. The needs of ELL students are increased because not only do they have two languages to filter, they also vary in their degree of knowledge in two languages. Furthermore, their knowledge about technology itself needs to be taken into consideration. Traditionally ELL students have been largely excluded from online learning. However, more and more ELL students are enrolling in online courses to satisfy the high-school graduation requirements of some states.

E2020 Course Learning

This study focuses on the benefits and the challenges in implementing the E2020 online education system in a public high-school math credit recovery program. The goal is to determine the program's effectiveness for ELLs. E2020 is a widely used online, education program developed by Edgenuity. It offers a variety of educational programs for grades 6 to 12. These courses are designed to meet the demands of state and national standards with new curriculum content for the Common Core State Standard. The course includes instruction, readings, assignments, and multimedia resources with embedded scaffolds, intended to help all students meet the challenges of modern, rigorous educational standards.

Edgenuity also offers credit recovery courses to help students catch up and keep up with their studies so they can graduate on time. Self-paced learning and pre-testing allow students to spend more time on what they need and less time on content they have already mastered [10]. Every course can be customized to match district requirements, which gives educators the ability to have students build a strong foundation for the next course to come.

The Edgenuity model for learning embeds the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) in its framework. UDL is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences that guides the development of flexible learning environments to accommodate individual learning differences [11]. Recognizing the way individuals learn can be unique, the UDL framework calls for creating curriculum from the outset that provides:

  • Multiple representations to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  • Multiple ways of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know.
  • Multiple ways to engage students to tap into learners' interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn [7].

E2020 incorporates these principles by providing visual, audio, and-whenever possible-tactile learning experiences. Students are also given opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. For example, the E2020 math course has journaling assignments for students to express their understanding of content verbally in addition to demonstrating knowledge through traditional problem-solving assignments.

The design of knowledge build-up in the E2020 course is based on Bloom's Taxonomy of learning domains [12] The sequence of assignments is such that it leads students to higher levels of thinking and skills application, thus engaging progressive levels of cognition [9]. While working on the assignments, students not only prove and apply what they have learned, but they also practice analyzing and creatively approaching problem solving. These characteristics are meant to make it highly effective in helping students' progress in their learning (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Bloom's Taxonomy Pyramid
[click to enlarge]

The two main research questions to be answered through this study are as follows:

  1. Based on student and teacher reporting, does Edgenuity's E2020 Math Credit Recovery Program provide an appropriate degree of the quality of learning experience with ELL students in the southwestern United States?
  2. What are the ELL student's and teacher's reported degree of the quality of learning experience toward the E2020 web-based education program?

Methodology. The study was conducted in 2013 at a rural high school in the Southwest. Being from a rural background means students often have a different repertoire for language because of their exposure to different environments and situations. The measure for this study was student math achievement as measured by scores and grades reported by the school. The study focused on an E2020 math credit recovery classroom. There were 35 students whose ages varied from 16 to 19 years old. They were selected from a voluntary a pool of 45 students who were using the E2020 program. Seventy-five percent of the participating students were Hispanic with Spanish as their primary language. Three of the students could not speak English at all. The other students ranged from below grade-level ability in reading and writing to fluent use of English. The course was presented entirely in English. All of the students had failed to receive credit in their regular math classes and were working on recovering the lost credit.

There were five math courses available through the E2020 program: algebra 1, algebra 2, geometry, pre-calculus, and financial math. Researchers conducted direct observations in each course, pre- and post-program surveys, and personal interviews with the students and one of the teachers. Direct observation was performed with the researcher taking online notes for 45-65 minutes once a week while each student used the E2020 program. The observations were focused on observing each student interact with the program itself. The surveys contained 10 questions that were both a mix of open-ended and Likert-scale questions, from "strongly agree" to "disagree." The questions were developed to understand how each student viewed their interaction with the program. Individual interviews ranged from 25 to 45 minutes; teacher and students were asked 15 pre-determined questions. The first interview was held at the beginning of the semester and the other was conducted at the end of the semester. The following questions were asked:

  • Do you enjoy working on your E2020 course?
  • Do you find your E2020 course helpful?
  • Is working on E2020 easier than working in a regular classroom?
  • Does the E2020 course help you to move faster through the curriculum?
  • Does E2020 give you independence in your studies?
  • Do you find the course lectures helpful?
  • Is the wording of the lectures and problems in the E2020 course easy to understand?
  • Is English your strongest language?
  • Do you feel optimistic about completing the course well?
  • Would you prefer if all your classes were online?


At the beginning of the course, students were divided into two groups in order to identify the students whose math skills were below grade level. About 30 percent of the students had good math skills, but had failed to complete their regular math classes because of too many absences or other behavioral problems. The rest of the students had below grade-level content knowledge, with many of them lacking skills required at the fourth grade level.

Survey. At the beginning of the study, which was also the beginning of the school year, the researchers conducted an initial survey. For the survey, the following questions were included:

  • Why do you enjoy working on your E2020 course?
  • Why do you find your E2020 course helpful (or not?)
  • Why do you find working on E2020 easier than being in a regular classroom? Or, if you find it more difficult why is that so?
  • Why do you feel optimistic about completing the course well? If not, why not?
  • Why would you like all your classes to be online? Or why would you prefer to go to a regular classroom?

Students were asked to indicate and rationalize their level of confidence that they would successfully complete the course. Based upon the responses, about 80 percent of the students said they were optimistic about completing the course (see Table 1). The reported reason was they had "learned from their past mistakes of not taking their studies seriously" and "they would not repeat those again."Only a few students expressed doubts or worry about being successful, citing previous difficulties with math. The survey also shows how students perceived the course and their grades (see Table 2).

Table 1. Question: Do you feel optimistic about completing the course successfully?

Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Somewhat Agree Disagree
Number of students 4 20 12 6 0
% of Total 9% 44% 27% 13% 0%

Table 2. Question: Did you enjoy working on your E2020 course?

Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Somewhat Agree Disagree
Number of students 8 20 6 10 1
% of Total 18% 44% 13% 22% 2%

Observations. The program's lectures and quizzes were already pre-set, which made it difficult to accommodate the needs of students who had skills below the start level of the course. In a traditional classroom environment, a teacher would work on bringing those skills up while simultaneously teaching the current content. In the E2020 course, going back and forth in skills build-up was impossible because the course followed a set sequence of lectures, and the content did not change in regards to how a student performed on the assessments. The only way to help a student catch up was to provide individual instruction outside of the course. Students disliked that type of direct instruction because it put them behind their target completion for the course, which in turn affected their grades negatively. Some of the students felt they were in a "no-win situation," because if they tried to catch up their grades went down. This conflict of priorities was observed throughout the entire study period.

As the course progressed, many students had challenges with the structure of the course. Some expressed frustration with the length of the video lectures, which were as long as 20 minutes; students often reported they could not stay focused for that long. Based on observations, these students would disengage which led to both learning and disciplinary problems. That was especially evident with the ELL students who also had difficulty with the complexity of the language used in the lectures. Those students appeared to understand the content better when they had direct instruction focused on demonstration through examples rather than verbal explanation.

Positive results with the course were observed mainly among senior students. They were highly motivated to complete the course on time and recover the grade they needed in order to graduate. With very few exceptions, senior students stayed focused on their work and were able to keep the pace set by the course.

Since the E2020 course is set for individualized work, students who enjoyed the course were those who preferred to work alone. Being able to work at their own pace and not having to compare the quality of their work with that of their peers seemed to help them stay focused and keep progressing. However, such students were in the minority. The majority of students needed, and sought, peer interaction to stay motivated.

Interview. Toward the end of the study, an interview was conducted in English with the E2020 online credit recovery course students and their teacher. The students were asked to share what they liked and what they didn't like about the course, as well as how they felt about taking online classes in general. While the majority of students liked the E2020 math course, they missed classroom interactions with their peers and were not interested in having all of their classes online. When asked if they felt the course was helpful and if their progress was faster, they again answered positively.

Their teacher, who felt students did not take full advantage of the course in order for it to be truly helpful, did not share the students' opinion. The teacher did not believe the course helped students move faster through the material, because the pace of the course was set as if it was in a physical classroom.

Teacher Interview. One of the E2020 teachers was selected for a one-on-one interview to understand his perspective on the program. He was asked, "Do you feel your students enjoy working on the E2020 course? Why do you feel that way?" His response was, "I feel they enjoy working on E2020. It is a break from their regular classrooms." When asked if English was his students' strongest language, his response was telling: "English and Spanish are." He was also probed about the use of online programs. He stated, "I think having every class online is too much for them [his students]. I feel they need other human contact to reflect on what they are learning." He also explained that even though the course was organized to adhere to Common Core, he still had to follow up with the material to make sure students were confident in the material, especially using both languages to make certain they understood the material.


The first research question was: Based on student and teacher reporting, does Edgenuity's E2020 Math Credit Recovery Program provides an appropriate degree of learning experience with ELL students in the southwestern U.S.? The E2020 Course was effective in providing a platform to use online learning in several ways. It allowed students to individualize their pace and needs, the course provided technological support throughout the time period, the course allowed students to view their progress, and it gave educators a chance to address Common Core standards while incorporating math skills via computers. The E2020 course also provided a framework for students to follow that gave them a structure of learning from a more basic level to a gradually more difficult level. However, the students reported the E2020 program was ineffective in allowing course navigation, using Spanish, teacher instruction time, and reducing the time spent on a topic.

In addressing the second question-What are the ELL student's and teacher's reported degree of learning experience with the web-based education program?-the E2020 course had some drawbacks. Because the course was only in English, if students needed support in Spanish they had to rely on teacher support. Some of the students neither liked the pace of the course, nor the instruction method of lectures. Also the students were all at different learning levels; even though the course was gradual in complexity, the students' felt overwhelmed at times. From a teacher's perspective, the course was well organized and structured closely to the Common Core standards, but many of the students who took the course still needed a lot support, especially in Spanish.


The limitations of the study were the qualitative nature of the participation and scoring of the surveys, because the students and the teacher reported what was believed to be accurate information. Although it is inferred that the students were honest, there may have been some misinterpretations of the questions being asked because of the second language influence and student reporting. Since this study was focused on a school in a rural community setting, the results cannot be generalized completely because of the special characteristics and needs of students from this region. Also, because the students were English language learners and the program was in English, the students may have had different results if the program was in Spanish, which was not explored in this study.

Implications for Practice

When working with ELL students using a course similar to E2020, there are some suggestions that may help the learning process. Educators should be aware of the language used within the course to understand what supports will be needed for the students. For example, some ELL students may need a direct instructor to translate the information. Other students may only need minimal support in their native language.

Because many of the online learning courses are structured rigidly in terms of navigating the course, it is difficult for students to move about the course freely. At the beginning of the course, the ELL students in this study needed guidance with the course content to ensure they understood the format. The ELL students also needed to know the terminology of math concepts in English in order to be successful in the course. The teacher had to make sure the students understood the terms of each section as the students progressed. Both the teacher and ELL students felt like the technology and computer aspect of the E2020 course made learning more enjoyable. The use of the computer may be a way for educators to teach new material while addressing student motivation [13].

Educators are recommended to utilize the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute and iNACOL's Research Clearinghouse for K-12 Blended and Online Learning for research-based support and ideas on how interact with students and online learning environments. According to Moore, when researching massive open online courses (MOOCs), learner-learner interactions could have a stimulating effect on younger learners and it may be especially true with ELLs [13]. Likewise, Juho Kim found similar results with concerns to MOOCs [14].

Leaner-learner interactions were a positive reinforcement for students. Freidhoff et al. reported mentorships for students using online learning are one way to address the needs of students using online classrooms [8]. The authors have a mentor guide that addresses some of the needs for students in online classroom environments.


After observing the ELL students and conducting interviews and surveys with both students and the teacher, the following conclusions were derived from the study:

  • The E2020 math credit recovery course could be helpful to ELL students who are strongly motivated to complete it. Being an online course, E2020 allows students to choose how they pace their studies, which could be beneficial only if they have self-responsibility and a sense of purpose. The majority of the ELL students lacked both self-responsibility and motivation based on observations.
  • While independence in learning was noted as one of the main benefits of the course, because of the lack of self-discipline, many of the ELL students fell behind in their progress because there was no teacher supervision. Based on the teacher report, students still needed some facilitation with the skills used in the course. The teacher suggested instructors still follow up with student understanding to ensure clarity and knowledge transference in both languages. The use of mentors may also be a potential solution for this issue [8].
  • Based on observations, the course did not help the ELL students move faster through the curriculum. The number of lectures, lab exercises, practice quizzes, and assessments were such that the pace did not differ from the pace in a regular classroom. The ELL students in general retained their natural pace with some of them progressing faster and others slower.
  • Since the program did not have a way to assess the work of the students, but relied on the multiple-choice assessments, it did not appropriately reflect the skills of the ELL students. One limitation from working on an online course with multiple-choice assessments is many students prefer to guess the answers rather than solve the problems, which could impact their scores.
  • Based on student reports, the course was difficult to follow because of their specific language needs. ELL students enjoyed the actual use of the technology, but wished they had more Spanish scaffolding and more teacher interactions.
  • Because Bloom's taxonomy was the basis for the E2020 course, it is feasible that Bloom's taxonomy scaffolding could be used to supplement student learning. In other words, educators should emphasize Bloom's taxonomy pyramid to address ELL student needs in both languages.

While the E2020 program could be helpful as a supplement to regular class instruction, as a main source of instruction, it was not a benefit to the multi-lingual and diverse social background student pool in this particular high school. Those students would benefit more from instruction that is differentiated and personalized as well as the positive motivational effect of interactions in a real classroom [15].

For educators, this study revealed although online learning can be helpful in the classroom with ELLs, online learning also has limitations [16]. The ELL students in this study were extremely positive about using technology, but did not feel like this particular program provided the language supports they needed [10]. Although this E2020 course was strict in terms of the protocol for providing support to the students, educators have to recognize further teaching is necessary for many ELL students. Technology, like many other tools in education, is only as good as the critical thinking of professional educators who use those tools.


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About the Authors

Boris Costa-Guerra is from Taos and is the Principal of Kearney Elementary in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Costa-Guerra received his Ph.D. in the field of curriculum and instruction. He has been an educator and coach for more than 10 years working in the public and private school settings in New Mexico. He is proudly bilingually endorsed by the State of New Mexico in Spanish. Costa-Guerra has been on the technology board for the National Association for Bilingual Education and on the Deans and Directors of New Mexico committee. He has also contributed to the research community by researching issues concerning diverse populations, assessment, technology and language.

Leslie Costa-Guerra is a speech-language pathologist working in the public schools specializing in the assessment of Native American and Hispanic students. She is an instructor for Eastern New Mexico University and New Mexico State University. Her research reflects the need for Native American and Hispanic students to be treated with equity in school systems. She is from Tesuque Pueblo, New Mexico and is proudly a Tewa woman.

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