Virtual schools and the school tracking debate

The personalization of education may be possible and highly impactful for individual students, with effective and strategic leveraging of technology, paired with what we know about learning styles and the influences of the characteristics of the educational “setting.” At the heart of the important debate around school “tracking” is a question about how to provide best for each student.  Do the benefits of grouping students in classrooms by their ability outweigh drawbacks, for the students and for the school?  Pivovarova (2014) explores how the composition of a peer group in a classroom might affect student achievement. She defines school tracking as “ability grouping with or without design of the specific curriculum for different ability groups” (p. 5).


A student’s academic experience can be customized based upon their curricular and learning needs in a virtual institution.  What does online education mean for the conversation around tracking?  Does it offer an alternative that makes the issue moot?  Does it offer a solution to the detriment of “bad” peers by minimizing the peer experience, relative to a brick-and-mortar educational setting?  Does it mean that students miss out on the benefits of groupings that include “good” peers, or high achieving students?  Can online education provide an experience that excludes effects of “bad peers,” forefronts the presence of and interactions with “good peers,” and otherwise individualizes the learning experience to the benefit of each student?


Pivovarova discusses the complexities of how tracking may impact achievement for individual students.  She demonstrates that the composition of the peer group affects different types of students differently.  For example, while a high achieving student seems to be “immune” to the peer group (including any variation in the population that might occur as students enter and leave) (p. 19), low achieving students benefit from the presence of high achievers.  Furthermore, she warns that previous research has shown that tracking can enhance inequality of learning opportunities for low achievers and students who may already be disadvantaged socio-economically (p. 2 & 4).


(Proponents of tracking also espouse the potential for enhanced school efficiency.  Though most schools have scarce resources, and negotiating the economics of providing for the student population is a necessary priority of any school, this stance is justified by an argument comfortable with the objectification of the student body whose only relevant characteristics are their ability and the convenience with which their needs might be attended to.  Since it seems schools’ primary goals ought to revolve around supporting students’ learning – equitably, however diverse their needs may be – I leave the economics of tracking mostly to the side, for this post.)


Online education may offer an alternative to the classroom environment that facilitates a kind of instructional differentiation that equitably attends to the needs of each student.  The low achieving student or the “bad” peer is little able to disrupt the learning of others (Pivovarova, 2014, p. 7).  Activities can be constructed to coordinate the involvement of high achievers, e.g. in academic leadership roles such as tutoring, discussion board posts requiring the readership and critical commentary of the peer group, educational games, and socialization opportunities organized by the school or parent organization.


(This last idea calls forth another related question about informal interaction: does Pivovarova’s study translate into settings that are outside of the classroom but are within the school’s domain [e.g. field trip to the city art museum]?  Online or distance education literature is partially preoccupied by the concept of community, and how achievement, retention, and/or other observable or self-reported factors of the program is positively impacted (e.g. Harrell II, 2008; Jagannathan, Blair, 2013; Sadera, Robertson, Song, & Midon, 2009).  This post will not address this question – peer composition, non-class-related interaction, and achievement – but it seemed intriguing enough to make brief mention.)


Pivovarova’s study was specific to the physical classroom environment – would “good” peers similarly affect their group in a setting held together by technologies and not by face-to-face interaction or the structure of a classroom and the set routine of a school schedule?  The author puts forth an electoral analogy, that of the median voter (in this case, to discuss the median student and how he or she affects or is affected by the peer group’s composition) (p. 21).  In contemplating what Pivovarova’s study suggests about education more broadly, including if or how her findings translate into “nontraditional” settings, the analogy that resonates with me clearly, is one of nutrition.


Because big food industry and associated marketing firms have tried to find new and catchy angles to capture and retain consumers for their food products, and because of our society’s aversion to the complex and desire to reduce a thing to its simplest form, fragmenting it into its component parts, and because of our search for a “quick fix” to immense and accelerating health problems, a holistic understanding of nutrition is neglected.  To address diabetes, consumers are encouraged to switch to artificial sweeteners, to lose weight, they may want to try carbohydrate or fat blockers, or for a mineral or vitamin deficiency, a pill will right one’s nutritive imbalance.  What we’re missing when we pick and choose elements of nutrition and or the food system, extracting them from their context, are the feedback loops, tradeoffs, and interrelationships and their effects.


Like our bodies or our food systems, a classroom environment and a school are complex systems that cannot be understood by studying one decontextualized factor. Pivovarova’s work offers considerations about peer groups that are useful for constructing an educational program – including one delivered largely virtually – that supports a peer culture conducive to each student’s achievement.  The nutrition analogy is a reminder that such findings do not offer “plug and play” solutions, and that context matters.


Moreover – especially – peers matter.  Pivovarova’s study demonstrates that peers don’t just matter for their contribution to a “sense of community” (Sadera, Robertson, Song, & Midon, 2009), which may be important for student sense of belonging, but something about their presence seems to have a more direct impact on student achievement.  Whether it is because the teacher tailors instruction to engage the high achiever and the lower achieving student benefits, because the high achievers inspire or otherwise motivate other students, or for some other reason, those in online education should take note.


The 2014-2015 school year will offer an opportunity for me to conduct action research, at some level, in my workplace.  It will be the inaugural year a small online college preparatory school, emphasizing advisement, community and peer culture, and college readiness.  I will be in a position to observe, experiment with, and engage students in program evaluations that will inform program improvement efforts.  Pivovarova’s findings are cause to further interrogate the program model as it takes shape this summer, and to critically witness the peer-to-peer (or absence of class time peer interaction) effects on academic success.


Harrell II, I. L. (2008). Increasing the success of online students. Inquiry13(1), 36–44.

Jagannathan, U., & Blair, R. (2013). Engage the disengaged: Strategies for addressing the expectations of today’s online millennials. Distance Learning10(4), 1–7.

Pivovarova, M. (2014). Should We Track or Should We Mix Them? Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Tempe: Arizona State University.

Sadera, William A.; Robertson, James; Song, Liyan; Midon, N. M. (2009). The role of community in online learning success. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2).