Monday, June 20, 2011

Is Online Learning Stuck in a Rut?

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a full day seminar on online instruction our county office of education was hosting. It consisted of a panel of individuals responsible for the online school programs at their locations sprinkled throughout the California Central Valley region. The Central Valley is the “bread basket” to the rest of the State and a good part of the rest of the Country in terms of farming and produce.

Our communities in this area, due to our industries and geographic location, continue to evolve creating challenges for community services and public education. I was hoping to hear how other schools and school districts are using online education to address some of the challenges we face here in California in educating our children. I wanted to hear about how the technology has afforded them the tools to teach children in different ways than traditional brick and mortar schools.

Okay, in the back of my head I knew that I probably would not be hearing anything too revolutionary in terms of educating children. I was correct. Online learning is still in its infancy and we are still stuck in thinking about the use of our new technologies as little more than video infused, web based “clicker” (student response system) correspondence courses. We are delivering instruction in our online schools the same exact way we are delivering instruction in our brick and mortar schools. We are not evaluating how we can be using these technologies to deliver instruction in a way that is more productive in fostering student learning and that addresses the needs of our students, and not the needs of the institution.

The closest we come to addressing students’ needs in online education is be providing students with a little more autonomy in the “when and where” they receive the typical instruction. For highly motivated students, this provides them with a strategy to accelerate through the standards based content. What we should be asking ourselves is does giving the student the ability accelerate through our standards based curriculum equate to higher degrees of acquired intelligence; or just the ability to forget more of what they “learned” much quicker than a student in a brick and mortar school?

Our current vision of online learning revolves around two key points: providing students with more autonomy in how they “receive” our standards based curriculum and providing students “classroom” opportunities in content areas that their brick and mortar schools do not. Both of these are valid and positive, but for all the effort we are making to address online learning it seems a little short.

The way I see the direction of online schools, we are essentially providing the same instructional model we have today. The online learning model fits nicely with in the current structure of public education. In doing so, it also fits nicely, up to a point, with addressing the same students that are successful in our current brick and mortar schools. These students would be just as successful in our online school as they would in a brick and mortar provided: a) their parents are going to be much more involved in their child’s education than they were when they were in a brick and mortar school; and b) the curriculum for the online learning makes up for the deficiencies of separating the learner from their peers. (One factor that brick and mortar schools have in their favor, which is easier for them to accomplish, is motivation as a result of peer interaction.) This second point relates more to the fact that it is much more difficult to motivate and engage students online than it does in a traditional brick and mortar school.

Even the experts have a hard time defining the true benefits of our new technologies when it comes to online learning. iNACOL released a report titled, Online Schools and How They Address At Risk Students. If you read that report they describe successful strategies that these online institution are deploying to help at risk students. What are their solutions? Almost every one of them are strategies that have nothing to do with online learning. Strategies they share are one-to-one and small group direct instruction, and technology tools that could just as easily be used in a brick and mortar school. Other influencing factors they describe are flexibility in allowing students to go back over the content as many times as they need. We could be just as flexible in brick and mortar schools if we chose to, but this is unlikely though as we would have a heck of a time getting through all the standards based content.

The above point gets to the heart of what the real issue is regarding online learning. Online learning, and the technologies that go with it will revolutionize how we educate children. The problem right now is our trying to make online learning fit the existing model, which many would decry is not working for students on both ends of the curve, and would probably wreck havoc with some of those learners in the middle of the curve too in its current design.

When you read an article about online learning, ask yourself, could this not be implemented in a traditional brick and mortar classroom? If you are like me, the majority of “answers” you find are going to be that it could be implemented in a regular classroom. If it can, why do we need to do it online?

There are many reasons why this might be the case, economics comes to mind for one. But we will not be solving any of our problems with public education if we go down this road. The reason is because nothing will have changed except for the delivery model.

What does our current technologies bring to the table that enables us to answer the opposite? “No. This could not have happened in a traditional brick and mortar classroom.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Meaningful Assessments

Tomorrow night is the second presentation I will be giving as the chair of our District’s Innovative Schools Committee. The committee has been looking at current practices and where we feel we need to begin moving to in terms of addressing learning in a modern world , what ever “modern” means...

The first presentation was titled the Digital Revolution, and was primarily the foundation for the four topics that follow. A one page summary of the initial presentation content can be found here: (Presentation consisted of a mash-up of listed video resources lasting approximately 10 minutes.)

Tomorrow night’s topic is Meaningful Assessments. Meaningful assessments, as per the committee’s definition, are assessments that are primarily useful for the student, and secondly, useful for the teacher. Educational assessments that are valued by any other entity are deemed as non-primary assessments and are not included under the meaningful assessments heading.

The presentation will begin with a review of common assessment terms such as formative and summative assessments. Examples will be provided of both types of assessments. The most widely familiar summative assessment is the state standardized tests. However, this example could possibly be argued to be defined more as a score as opposed to an assessment. Formative examples of assessment are more closely tied to the individual learner, and provide diagnosis or strategy for improvement. Though most would say formative assessments are primarily the types of assessments we are describing below, there is no reason why summative assessments could not posses the same types of characteristics as formative assessments.

Following the assessment review, common characteristics of assessments will be presented as determined by the committee. These characteristics are:

1. Assessment & Instruction are inseparable - If you can separate the instruction from the assessment, you don’t have an assessment.

2. Assessments have a specific purpose - They possess a goal or target as to what is being measured.

3. The results, or data, is time specific and by no means limit or define an individual with the exception of the identified goal or target at the instant of that assessment.

4. The results are dependent on motivation. If the results can be independent, then you don’t have an assessment you have a “score.” Scores and assessments are not the same thing.

Video Clip: Tom Chatfield: TED Video - 7 Ways Games Reward the Brain (Motivation) Fast forward to 8 minutes and 30 seconds:

Every time you hear him say game, think of learning and assessment instead.

5. Assessments provide guidance on how to improve the learning.

6. Just as the results are time specific, the assessment tool itself must adhere to the instructional and societal norms of the time period in order to be (the most) useful.

Video Clip: Social Aspects of Learning and Engaging (Full video, Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age - Session III available at

Video - Assessment (and therefore instruction too) is specific to learner’s moment in time i.e. TEDxSF - Scott Hess - Millennials: Who They Are & Why We Hate Them ← Think about the generation in our elementary schools now and how millennial characteristics are evolving in this bunch of learners...

7. Assessments should be designed based on the needs of the student in a developing modern world.

The last component of the presentation will be that the board directs staff to design and implement assessments that emphasize preparing children for a world that they will shortly inherit and to keep these ideals in mind when creating assessments:

1. Know who’s learning (What do they need/want? What’s fun/motivating for them?)

2. Build fun, pleasure, and satisfaction into core assessment loop.

3. Change the learner assessment experience over time (a good learning experience takes the learner on a journey.)

4. Build assessments that reward what is learned and provide goals.

5. Create assessments that clearly define paths to future goals.

6. Design assessments that increase challenge and complexity: create conditions for flow.

7. Provide assessments that incorporate intrinsic motivators like power, autonomy, and belonging.

(The seven principles above were the result of assigning “assessment thinking” to the list that Amy Jo Kim is described as creating in the blog post,

A example of an assessment system that begins to contain many of these characteristics can be found here: The Classroom Badging System -

(image of squirrel courtesy of exfordy, on Flickr.