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.”

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