The Internet is down. A document won’t open. The instructions aren’t clear. These are just a few of the setbacks students in online credit recovery programs might encounter before they even start an assignment.

But in Montana, some of those students find such issues rarely interfere with their learning. The difference for this group—participants in the Montana public schools’ most successful online credit recovery programs—seems to be access to teachers who can help them troubleshoot technical difficulties and content-related challenges, according to the study, “Online credit recovery: Enrollment and passing patterns in Montana Digital Academy courses,” released last month by REL Northwest, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences serving Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

“In the end, a smart, caring, talented and insistent adult is going to make the student successful.”

In states like Montana, where enrollment in rural districts is expected to increase and districts have limited resources to support students in remote areas, online credit recovery programs are an attractive option for keeping students on track for graduation, according to the study. But even though 90 percent of U.S. school districts offer some form of credit recovery program, the study said, research comparing different types of credit recovery options is limited. This makes it difficult for schools to determine which credit recovery options—summer school, after-school programs or online programs, for example—are best for individual students.

The study evaluated 2013-14 enrollment and passing rate data from the Montana Digital Academy (MTDA), which is the only state-funded program offering online credit recovery courses in Montana. The findings were also based on interviews with school leaders from eight districts across Montana, representing both urban and rural districts and varying in size. The study included schools on Native American reservations.

“Students taking one Montana Digital Academy online credit recovery course per semester had lower passing rates than those taking multiple courses in a semester,” the study said. According to Sarah Frazelle, senior advisor for research and analysis at REL Northwest and co-author of the study, this could be because schools that have students enrolled in multiple classes per semester are required by the MTDA to provide additional support services to them, such as additional in-person guidance from a teacher as they complete the online course.

Jason Neiffer, assistant director and curriculum director of MTDA, echoed this observation.

“In the end, a smart, caring, talented and insistent adult is going to make the student successful,” Neiffer said.

Students enrolled in MTDA online credit recovery courses are often the students who need the most support when it comes to graduating from high school. Some have poor attendance records or have a history of not completing class assignments on time. Others are dealing with problems at home or have moved between districts, the study said. According to Neiffer, sitting students down in front of a computer, forcing them to log in and pushing them to complete the program isn’t enough.

“Generally speaking, there’s nothing special about the online environment that would make up for learning deficiencies in the face-to-face environment,” Neiffer said.

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The MTDA works with schools to identify the additional resources students need to be successful in the online credit recovery program, the study said. That could mean providing time and supervision during the regular school day to sit for the courses or work on assignments, or ensuring that students have Internet access and a computer to log-on to the courses at home. The MTDA is also working to develop systems that use data to automate feedback loops that will help students identify for themselves areas that need improvement. The MTDA ensures that all students enrolled in online credit recovery courses have virtual access to certified teachers and 24/7 online content-area tutoring.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

Jamie Martines

Jamie Martines is a reporting intern covering blended learning. She earned her master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2016, and holds a bachelor’s degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Before attending Columbia, Jamie spent two years teaching English to seventh and eighth graders at a rural public school in southwest China.