Move learning online

Traditional schools aren’t working, so it’s time to move learning online, writes Reason Magazine editor Katherine Mangu-Ward in a Washington Post op-ed.

Thousands of ninth-grade English teachers are cobbling together yet another lecture on the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s day, when YouTube is overflowing with accessible, multimedia presentations from experts on Elizabethan theater construction, not to mention a very nice illustrated series on the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge site.

Virtual charter schools are showing how it can work, she writes.  For example, the Florida Virtual School offers for-credit online classes to any child enrolled in the state system.

Teachers are available by phone or e-mail from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. The state cuts a funding check to the school only when students demonstrate that they have mastered the material, whether it takes them two months or two years.

If lesson planning and delivery move online, teachers will have time to provide personalized support and mentoring, Mangu-Ward writes.

“Most teachers and most students who are taking classes online say that they have more interaction with their teachers and students than they do in a traditional setting,” claims Julie Young, Florida Virtual’s CEO.

Learning online won’t turn America into a nation of home-schooled nerds, sitting in their basements, keyboards clacking. And it doesn’t mean handing your kids over to Rosie the Robot from “The Jetsons” for the day.

There are many online learning models. I predict full-time virtual schooling will not work for the typical K-12 student unless there’s a parent coach at home. We should see more use of online education to provide challenge for bright students, extra help for lagging students and alternatives for those who don’t function well in a classroom.

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  1. Cranberry says:

    So we are approaching the time predicted in 1984 by Forbes magazine’s technology editor. “…in the end it is the poor who will be chained to the computer; the rich will get teachers.”

    Let’s see. Traditional learning isn’t working, so let’s remodel schools after the Summerhill model. Why not? It’s at least been around as a school model much longer than online learning. If your argument is “A is not working, therefore let’s do B,” you need to show that B is superior. Otherwise, opponents are free to propose substituting their favorite program for A. The apprentice system, for example. Or, doing nothing.

    One cannot assume that the population of students presently using online resources are the equivalent of the U.S. school population. For one thing, they’re far more likely to be gifted and talented, and to have already outstripped their high school’s offerings.

    Personally, I’m in favor of literacy. It has its strengths, which is one reason humans retained the practice. For one thing, it is very efficient. I can read a transcript of an interview much more quickly than I can watch the entire interview. In this argument, I’d rather side with Clifford Stoll, Neil Postman and David Gelernter, thank you very much. The screen is not a substitute for the classroom, even if for-profit companies would like to argue that it is.

  2. Online classes are definately worthwhile for the motivated learner. Just because it’s online doesn’t necessarily mean it’s without teacher/student/peer interaction. All online learning isn’t structured in the same way.

    As a homeschooler, my 12 year old is taking a beginners robotics/programming class online. It’s been a wonderful experience for him. Next year he’ll take three classes online, all through the same virtual school.

    To the prior poster…”The screen is not a substitute for the classroom, even if for-profit companies would like to argue that it is…” Maybe, but the classroom isn’t a substitute for actual learning. How many students sit zoned-out, glassy-eyed through their high school and college classes because they’re required to be there? I wonder if having more independence and personal accountability via online classes wouldn’t encourage more actual engagement for some. Options, choices, flexibility.

  3. I wonder, in the 1970s, were they talking about “traditional education doesn’t work: we must move it to all be done over television”?

    While technology can be wonderful, I think sometimes educators embrace it too uncritically.

  4. I don’t think the key to improved learning is necessarily online… it is the assistance that a computer-based program can give to a teacher in performing basic tasks with the student. For example, A teacher is not needed to necessarily create, administer, and grade a basic skills or knowledge based test. A computer program would make the assessing much more efficient by grading and performing data analysis. The teacher would then be free to design effective remediation or further lessons as necessary.

  5. Tom Toch had an interesting take on this issue in the most recent Kappan. Here’s his final paragraph:

    “Assuming that independent online learning educates students to the standards we expect(preliminary studies suggest that online courses can raise student achievement as effectivelyas brick-and-mortar courses, but the quality of the Internet-based courses is mixed, not surprisingly), the most prudent course seems to be to focus on establishing hybrid schools that supplement face-to-face instruction with online offerings, especially for secondary school students. Joel Rose, chief executive for human capital in the New York City school system and a founder of the School of One project, has it right when he says the best role of technology in the delivery of instruction
    is to “complement what live teachers do.”

  6. “Thousands of ninth-grade English teachers are cobbling together yet another lecture on the Globe Theatre”

    What this formulation misses is that by “cobbling together yet another lecture” on a subject, a good teacher makes it his own and prepares to lead a discussion in a way that would be harder to achieve (although not theoretically impossible) by showing and then discussing a precanned video.

  7. Paul Hoss says:

    Virtual/Distance learning is the wave of the future. One of the often overlooked benefits of this type of education is it is individualized. Each student can progress at their own pace. Try that in a traditional brick-and-mortar school and watch teachers will be racing to the exits.

  8. Michael Schrage on sparkly tools.

  9. Ricki, Thomas Edison thought that the movie projector would revolutionize education because it would allow *all* students to have instruction provided by the best teachers in the world. I point that out to show that the technology panacea has been around for far longer than a couple decades.

    I wonder, though, if we might not change public schools somewhat by offering distance learning courses *at school*. For example, my own school offers only 2 languages, French and Spanish. What, no Japanese, no Chinese, no Arabic, no German? What about Slavic languages? What about an architecture/design course, or drafting, astronomy (vs earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics)?

    There are ways to do this without swinging the pendulum to the extreme, ways that would enrich the curriculum, provide more choices to the student, and still deliver a quality education.

  10. the most prudent course seems to be to focus on establishing hybrid schools that supplement face-to-face instruction with online offerings

    I agree. I’d like to see schools transformed into learning centers that offer a la carte education. Parents could enroll their children anywhere from a single class to full-time. Have a supervised computer lab available for students to take online classes. Do away with rigid age groupings. Bring the “have it your way” philosophy out of the burger joints & coffee shops to the world of K-12 education…

  11. I’m interested in this issue from several angles.

    I’m an instructional designer, and I’ve completed an MA via online learning, so I know it can work. For motivated, mature students it’s fantastic, in fact — it gave me control over pacing, lots of links to optional/supplementary material that interested me, and the option of engaging in online discussion/q&a when I thought I would learn something from these interactions.

    But for younger students the outlook is far less salutary. I also can’t countenance schools wasting much time subjecting students to on-site computer-led lessons. How much of that time is squandered on just on technical/logistical issues? How much real learning actually goes on in a one-hour computer session?

    On the other hand, my daughter (who’s in second grade at a school here in Hong Kong) has the option of doing daily math and Chinese language computer work at home. She likes it, and there’s no question it’s improved her Chinese. But it’s essentially sophisticated drill/interactive exercise work that’s done at home, and it of course requires parental support.

  12. I was able to do high school in 3 years because of Florida Virtual School…including taking PE online.

  13. I know someone who distance-taught Spanish in a school system. Because of budget cuts, and because “she is a good teacher,” she wound up simultaneously teaching in five districts: five screens to keep track of, five classes of students, all at once. (That’s another concern I have with distance learning: administrators think it’s cheap, and think you can do economies of scale, because, really, isn’t it no more work to put 75 students in a class like that rather than 40? Or at least that’s what I’ve heard some admin types say)

    Also: for lab science, how do you do distance-taught labs? I don’t have a problem with online teaching per se; I just think that people are jumping into it too fast and embracing it too uncritically without thinking through what might be lost.

    On my campus, we offer Public Speaking as an online class. I get lots of students wanting to take it, because “I am afraid of having to talk in front of a group.” Um, then, I would think you should be taking the in-person class, so you can begin to confront that fear?

  14. Alf Tupper says:

    It works if the student is motivated. My daughter is thriving in online school (and I can monitor her from work). This guy really knows how to use the medium:

  15. Tiffany says:

    I think the key to online learning is balancing it with in-class learning. It can be really beneficial to students who have less access to quality education. At the younger levels, there will always be a need for in-class learning, for instance, learning to write letters and numbers. Online learning isn’t meant to be a complete replacement for the teacher/student interaction, but rather a supplement to live lessons. Aside from lessons, it can also teach students self-motivation and study skills.

    @Alf Tupper, Sal Khan is definitely doing a great job. There are a lot of other online tools out there too that are affordable, accessible, and a great boon to classroom learning, especially for cost-conscious charter schools. The folks at are working hard to make education accessible to everyone. They’re in beta testing right now.


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