Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Big Target Goal: Digital Delivery of Learning

The preponderance of information related to the future of educating our students using technology, specifically online, to address the needs of unique learners is great. Articles such as 10 Reasons Students Say They Prefer Learning Online, ViewPoint: The Future of Education Lies in the Cloud, and Reshaping Learning From the Ground Up, an interview with Alvin Toffler, all provide anecdotes of how technology is going to shape education in the future. Even our own U.S. Department of Education in their National Education Technology Plan 2011 provide a diagram with the learner and the computer at the center of the diagram.

The report states, “The challenge for our education system is to leverage technology to create relevant learning experiences that mirror students' daily lives and the reality of their futures. We live in a highly mobile, globally connected society in which young Americans will have more jobs and more careers in their lifetimes than their parents. Learning can no longer be confined to the years we spend in school or the hours we spend in the classroom: It must be lifelong, lifewide, and available on demand (Bransford et al. 2006)."

Initially, the ideas for this reflection began germinating after my Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Superintendent asked me to research a product that one of our school board members was approached about at the last California School Boards Association conference. The vendor that approached our board member was sharing their program for creating an online school and for supporting online classes for students. Their program could provide the entire online school for a participating district, from the curriculum, the teacher, the student management system, you name it, for a considerable percentage of the student state ADA (funding.) However, if we chose to take on some of those responsibilities, such as providing our own teachers, then the fee was reduced accordingly. Their program addresses home school students, online schools, credit recovery programs for the high school, and just about every alternative education scenario you can think up. According to the marketing materials, it is used by states across the country.

I reviewed the vendors web site and their accompanying demo lessons online. The lessons were pretty standard fare consisting of flash based multimedia files. Many of the online screens contained considerable amounts of text, and the font was pretty small. Their lessons where also a combination of online and traditional offline activities with textbooks. In some of the lessons, it appeared the lessons were more offline than online.

After reviewing their site and examples, I began to wonder what a good reason would be to go with their solution. I could only think of one reason. That reason would be to use it as a tool to evaluate what works well and what doesn’t as a school district begins to pursue the development of it’s own program. The big disadvantages I can see with adopting a program like this are: 1. You are turning over control of educating your students to a private company. 2. The instruction provided by this type of company is designed to address as may different types of students as possible. As a result it is very generic, and will not adequately address the unique characteristics of your learning community. 3. It is expensive. From what I could tell through reading some of the evaluations of this product online by parents that are using it, the vendor makes it’s dime not by selling to home school families, but by selling to the public school districts at a premium. If you care to review some of the reviews by parents using this program, I have included them here and here.

If the experts are predicting that the schools of the future will be taking advantage anytime, anywhere digital delivery of instruction, catering to the unique needs of every learner, why haven’t we made that the priority in public education? Why haven’t we began converting our traditional classroom based instructional processes to digital processes? We seem to be dancing around the fringes of the big idea by focusing on 1:1 student to computer programs, “flipping” instruction, and other partial solutions. If we are heading down a blended, or online delivery of instruction, why are we not requiring the individuals that know our students the best to convert 5% or 10% of their instruction each year for digital, online deployment? Granted, for school districts like my own, there is a lot of hard work to be able to get to that point. It will not be an easy task. However the alternative, in my opinion, is a lot worse. What do you think?

(Creative Commons licensed image courtesy of Shaggy Paul on Flickr)

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