The New York Times recently published an article that painted a dismal picture of online learning. “More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality” got me thinking just how huge a disruption online learning has become. The article, unfortunately, does little to further the discussion.

I’m not writing in defense of the critics or the states that support virtual schooling. Frankly, I found both their arguments as presented in the Times article to be unhelpful. Both sides ignore the fundamental challenges that schools, both public and private, are facing.

From solving teacher shortages to expanding curriculum options to providing options for credit recovery to alleviating scheduling conflicts, I believe (as I’ve seen in my own school) that a well-designed and well-taught online course can meet the needs of our students. But poor quality online curriculum, inadequately prepared teachers, and students without the requisite skills for success will ultimately fail to improve education.


Online learning is an international phenomenon

I’ll start by saying that the United States is not alone in facing these challenges. Countries around the world are investing the necessary capital, resources, and training into the development and evaluation of their online learning environments. One major factor is that, currently, there are more students in the world than teachers to teach them or schools to teach them in.

At the 2009 Virtual School Symposium (VSS) Susan Patrick, President of iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, shared a snapshot of what other countries are doing with distance learning:

–    British Columbia, Canada is providing online learning opportunities to rural students.
–    IB Diploma Programme Online has created an online version of their international program.
–    Turkey now has 15 million K-12 students learning online.
–    South Korea has started a national virtual school.
–    The Middle East has begun contracting online content worldwide so their students can have access to the best online courses.
–    India launched a program to scale up high quality K-12 online education in 10 years.
–    Australia is taking advantage of their 1:1 laptop initiative and looking to scale-up distance education.
–    China already has its entire curriculum online and is now in the process of training master teachers to teach online with a 10-year goal to have 100 million K-12 students learning online.
–    Singapore has 100% of all secondary schools offering a blended (virtual plus face-to-face) and online learning curriculum – and all teachers are trained to teach in this manner.

Singapore schedules a yearly e-learning week where they close buildings and school is taught online. I believe e-learning week now extends to higher education as well. In addition, Singapore has a clear continuity-of-learning plan in the event of outbreaks of disease or other situations that would keep students from their “brick and mortar” schools.

As online enrollments increase here in the states, more public and private schools are examining the advantages of making courses available to their students. My independent school began to offer online learning two years ago to create flexibility in our schedule, to enhance our course offerings, and to provide remediation or acceleration when called for. When one of our students signs up for an online class, they must have an e-learning mentor, a teacher who is there to provide face-to-face support, if needed, and to evaluate the course and the student’s experience. How involved the mentor is depends on the student and the course.


Online or offline, the same skills lead to student success

What most of us in education understand is that the skills necessary to be a successful online student are the same skills that will serve our students well into adulthood. Successful students are self-directed, self-motivated, and self-assessing. They are equipped with these skills because a great teacher taught them how and gave them ample opportunities to practice. It is a myth that any student can just sit at a computer and learn, even with the best online curriculum. Given how fast online learning in growing in higher ed, I think of the opportunities for online learning in high school as “college prep.”

quote from article highlighted

As for the effectiveness of online learning, the US Department of Education conducted a literature review of 51 online learning studies in 2009. The study compared both fully online programs and programs blended with traditional face-to-face instruction. The meta-analysis found that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction” (US DOE, 2009, p. ix). The study goes further, adding, “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.” (Although I’m not addressing blended learning specifically here, I agree that anecdotal evidence of successful outcomes points decidedly in the direction of a blended approach.)

This literature review is one-of-a-kind. It was prepared for USDOE by SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning (CTL), which also consults with education technology companies. However credible it may be, it is the one study, the only study, that everyone cites to prove the validity of online learning. But, as the report’s authors themselves note:

“An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K-12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K-12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).” Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning (ix)

Clearly, more research is urgently needed as the shift toward online learning in K-12 schools accelerates.

What we really need is a serious, national discussion on how we can best educate our children – one that acknowledges that everything has changed: from students and the variety of ways they learn to the multitude of tools they use to interact with the world.

The rows of desks, teacher lectures, and passive learning won’t lift us into the future. I don’t know about you, but I’m bringing everything I’ve got to the 21st century classroom. That includes online learning when and where appropriate.

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Renee Hawkins

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