Online Learning – The Latest Panacea?


Every other month a group of instructional technology educators from throughout our county join together for two hours of lunch and collaboration.  This group, sponsored by our local cable consortium, originally met to discuss the televised educational video content each district provided.  However, in the past few years are conversations have grown beyond that topic to include other projects or opportunities for collaboration.  At our most recent meeting this past week we discussed Google Apps roll outs, mobile technology pilots, and how each of us were supporting professional learning around the topic of  “21st Century Skills.”

Through our conversation we also discovered something else – each of our districts is currently embarking on the development of fully online or blended learning schools.  Some districts are further along than others, but each of us has begun the journey based on a common need to reach students the traditional brick-and-mortar model is missing.  These students are diverse and  include credit-deficient high school students, 8th graders who are ready for Geometry yet the school can’t financially justify a section for 3-4 students, and world language classes that might normally have low enrollment when spread across multiple high schools.  As each of us discussed our district’s virtual learning needs it became clear that all of us were deeply concerned about the various online-learning vendors.  After comprehensive reviews of many different prrograms no one was happy with the vendors they had investigtated.  One of the group memebers described the  process like “voting for a politician” and  she noted “at this point I’m just trying to find the product that will do the least damage to our kids.”  Each of described reviewing online learning materials and being horrified by the low-level tasks students were asked to accomplish. Often students read a passage, take a multiple choice recall test, and move on to the next passage.  There’s very little critical thinking. It’s exactly the type of instruction we’re trying to move away from in education.

Today’s article in the Wall Street Journal, My Teacher is an App, along with Will Richardon’s own analysis point out that we certainly are not alone in our concerns regarding this type of learning.  The notion that a district could just pruchase an online learning product, plug kids in, and expect positive outcomes is insane, yet that’s exactly what the rapid proliferation of virtual schools seems to be suggesting. Nothing in education is that simple.  Teaching involves human beings – both as teachers and as learners.  As a result, the process, regardless of technology, curriculum, or delivery model is bound to be highly variable.  Schools throughout the nation are looking towards online or blended learning to reach all students in our drive to help every student succeed.  That is a noble goal and one we should continue to explore for each of those students, the health of our communites, and global econoomic success.  However, we can’t forget everyhting we have already learned about effective instruction, quality curriculum, and the importance of rich, meaningful student tasks in the process.

At the end of our meeting this small group agreed on one thing – we could do it better through collaboration.  By reaching out to preexisting partnerships with organizations such as CUE, iNacol, and CLRN we plan to take what we already know about effective instruction, the models schools are currently building, and the goals of each of our districts to construct the virtual schools we need.  We also recognize that this cannot be done without our teachers and we must support a pedagogical transition to online and blended learning with resource including Leading Edge Certification.  We aren’t kidding ourselves – we know this will be tough.  However, we believe the best schools will come from deeply analyzing our needs and utilizing the knowledge of effective educators – it won’t come from simply purchasing a product, flipping on the servers, and walking away.


Photo: Plugged In by Skip Stewart

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