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Solving the Student Engagement Crisis

Supplemental online courses can make learning relevant for everyone and most schools now have the technologies needed to offer them.

By Carol DeFuria

Student engagement is a critical driver of academic success. If students are bored and disengaged in school, then studies show they won’t learn as effectively.

Numerous studies confirm the link between engagement and success. In one example, Gallup measured student engagement in schools for more than a decade and found that schools in the top quartile of engagement had significantly more students exceeding and meeting proficiency requirements than those in the bottom quartile.

Gallup’s polling also revealed that students’ engagement in their education is lagging, especially as they get older. Fewer than half of students (47 percent) said they were engaged at school; 29 percent said they weren’t engaged, and an alarming 24 percent said they were “actively disengaged.”

While engagement is strong at the end of elementary school, with nearly three-quarters of fifth graders (74 percent) reporting high levels of engagement, Gallup’s surveys showed a steady decline in engagement from sixth grade through high school, with about half of middle school students and only a third of high school students reporting high levels of engagement.

These figures reflect pre-pandemic information. With the challenges brought on by COVID during the last few years, student engagement is an even greater concern today, even as academic life has returned to normal in most schools. For instance, an Idaho survey found that only 46 percent of students were engaged in school in 2021, down from 53 percent in 2019.

Learning should be personally meaningful for every student

A key reason for students’ lack of engagement in their education is that they don’t have an opportunity to study topics that ignite their passion due to limited access to engaging elective courses and/or certified instructors.

The Gallup polling found that students who “strongly” agreed with the statement “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student" were thirty times as likely to be engaged in school than students who strongly disagreed with that statement. Too often, students feel like their schools take a “one size fits all” approach to instruction that doesn’t tap into their unique interests, gifts, or inclinations.

Giving students the chance to study topics that deeply interest them can change that, leading to stronger engagement in school.

For instance, students who love to watch CSI and other procedural crime dramas might discover a passion for science if they take a class in forensic science. Students who enjoy gaming and computers might find their calling by taking a computer science or programming class. Gifted students who are bored with the pace of instruction in honors-level classes might benefit from taking Advanced Placement® (AP) courses.

Yet, many K-12 schools can’t offer the breadth of courses needed to match all students’ interests. They might not have the budget to offer these courses themselves, or they might not be able to find and recruit teachers with the necessary expertise.

While 88 percent of public high school students attend a school that offers at least one AP course, students in rural areas are less likely to have access to AP courses—with nearly one-fourth of rural students (23 percent) lacking access to even a single AP course. Only half of all high schools offer computer science courses, according to

Supplemental online courses expand the choices available

Supplemental online courses provide a solution. They instantly expand the range of courses that schools can offer, enabling students to explore subjects they’re curious about from knowledgeable and qualified instructors worldwide. They help schools personalize each student’s education and strengthen engagement in school.

With the shortage of teachers at schools across the country, another added benefit of supplemental online teaching and learning is the ability for school’s to use online courses to better utilize their local teaching staff. Placing students in sections of online courses can result in fewer overcrowded classrooms, alleviate student scheduling issues, and help schools retain their students and take pressure off their existing teachers.

Many schools offered supplemental online courses to students prior to the pandemic. However, the pandemic has created increased interest in bringing supplemental online instruction to every student who wants it. One great example is Milford High School in Milford, MA, where students who exhausted all locally offered introductory engineering courses were able to complete advanced study in the discipline through VHS Learning’s honors level Sustainable Engineering course.

In the shift to emergency remote learning during the early stages of the pandemic, schools invested heavily in the digital infrastructure needed for students to learn online—including Chromebooks and other devices. Now, schools can use this technology to engage students more deeply in their education by connecting them with high-quality courses taught by certified teachers in topics that spark their enthusiasm—opening a world of possibilities.

Although there were mixed results when instruction moved online in spring 2020, there is a big difference between the emergency remote learning that took place then and high-quality online learning that is intentionally designed using best instructional practices. Whereas most remote learning experiences relied on a lecture model that tried to replicate a traditional classroom over Zoom, supplemental online classes put students at the center of the learning through authentic, hands-on projects and activities, and the use of a robust learning management system.

There’s no denying that despite their best efforts, many schools have a problem with student engagement. Supplemental online instruction connects students with nearly limitless possibilities to spur their interest—and enables K-12 leaders looking to leverage the technologies they purchased in response to the pandemic and utilize them to take full advantage of supplemental online courses as a solution to low engagement.

Carol DeFuria is the President and CEO of VHS Learning, a nonprofit organization with more than 27 years of experience providing world-class online high school programs to students and schools everywhere. More than 600 schools around the world take advantage of VHS Learning’s 300+ unique online courses to supplement their school’s face-to-face offerings.


This article was featured on The Learning Counsel.