It’s Virtually the Same Thing

A few months ago, the State of Florida mandated that all school districts make distance learning — or virtual education — available to all Florida K-12 students.  The announcement was a major shift in instructional delivery, yet it got barely a notice in the policy community.  For such a major shift — an idea that requires new regulatory oversight, attention to quality, improved standards, and a stronger sense of parental involvement (since they would be monitoring the student at home taking the class — it received minor attention.

Now, the plot thickens.  Last week, the Times Daily in Florence, Alabama reported on the evolution of virtual education down south, and traditional teachers embracing the new medium for instruction.  The full story is here — www.timesdaily.com/article/20081116/ARTICLES/811160343/1011/NEWS?Title=Next_year__students_must_take_Internet_course_to_graduate  
What makes this so interesting is that Alabama will soon require every student complete at least one virtual course before earning a high school diploma.  Imagine that — online education required to secure that public school diploma.  Not an option, not an alternative, but an actual requirement.
For decades now, institutions of higher education have experimented with the notion of virtual education.  Almost a decade ago, we talked about the transition from bricks-and-mortar institutions to clicks-and-mortar institutions, with the promise that online learning would reach more students, bring adult learners into the fold, and offer scheduling flexibility previously unavailable to college-goers coming directly from high school graduation.  The verdict is still out, though, on our ability to deliver on such expectations.  For every online college success story, there seems to be two or three of diploma mills and the triumph of profit over quality.
But how are these lessons applicable to K-12?  How do we deal with parental oversight, and family members who are staying home with kids learning in a virtual environment?  How are we ensuring the quality of online education, making sure it is up to the same standard as that offered in the classroom?  How are we aligning K-12 virtual education with the very real world of state assessments?  How are we ensuring that online ed is being delivered by quality, certified teachers, and not just teachers willing to work for a low dollar cost?  How do we ensure that virtual options don’t deny students the social interactions and soft skill acquisitions students pick up in the classroom?
Years ago, Eduflack was part of the online education arena, working on the development of a secondary school online education model.  During the process, I could see the positives.  Delivering relevant, interesting courses to students, even if there aren’t 25 other students who want to enroll in the course.  Further developing 21st century skills, specifically computer-based skills.  Offering learning opportunities beyond the 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. learning environment.  A real opportunity to personalize the learning process.  A chance to deliver urban or rural students courses and dual-credit programs that they otherwise couldn’t access.
But I quickly saw that the online education, at least in the high school space, was also rife with challenges.  Chief among them was ensuring the quality of instruction.  Through some models, teachers are reduced to mere facilitators, giving up their instructional leadership and merely serving as Vanna White to a collection of video lectures and online assessments.  What teacher wants to give up that authority?  And more importantly, what community wants to turn over instruction to the lowest bidder, viewing instruction as merely yet another commodity acquired by the central office?
Which gets us into the larger issue of instructional quality.  It is easy to find an off-the-shelf program and offer it up as an online learning opportunity. How do we ensure there is the proper R&D behind it?  How do we make sure the content and pedagogy match the expectations and standards of the school district?  And more importantly, how do we make sure online learning results match or exceed student achievement in the traditional classroom?  How do we hold districts responsible for AYP if instruction and learning is happening beyond their classrooms and beyond their classrooms?
Without question, our school districts need to explore ways to bring more innovation into the classroom and to offer alternative learning experiences that meet student interests and student abilities.  Our goal is not to de-skill our students, stripping them of the technology or the critical thinking skills they are already acquiring outside of the classroom.  But we need to do so smartly.  As states like Florida and Alabama look to mandate online learning opportunities for their students, they need to consider some safeguards to ensure quality and effectiveness:
* Regular online monitoring of student progress, ensuring that online learners are hitting state achievement marks and are as proficient, if not better, in reading, math, and science than their bricks-and-mortar learning partners.  At the end of the day, online works when we demonstrate it s an improvement to traditional classroom instruction.  Coming close doesn’t cut it.
* Families are committed to the online learning process, with parents not only pledging to ensure their students do the work, but to take advantage of the opportunities themselves to expand their learning and their skills.  Current online efforts are targeting families where parental engagement has been a weakness.  If we can’t get these families to get their kids to school in the morning, do we really expect them to monitor their kids’ online learning process on a daily basis?
* Online content must be delivered by experienced, certified educators, and that those with real K-12 experience are the ones delivering instructional content (and not merely teacher actors doing the work for $15 an hour)
* Online learning opportunities should be innovative, and not merely replications of the traditional classroom experience.  The online model provides a new way to teach and a new way to learn.  Forty-five minute lectures followed by quizzes is not the intent of online learning.  This should be about a new paradigm in learning and teaching.
* Standards are in place for online learning.  If we can’t have national education standards, we should at least have national standards governing online learning, standards that ensure quality and outcomes regardless of which area code is accessing the learning process.  If the thought is a kid in Alabama can take the same course as a kid in Minnesota and a student in New Jersey, we need one common standard that exceeds the expectations of any state assessment or measurement.
* Integration with the school system.  Online learning is a piece of the 21st century instructional puzzle.  It is designed to supplement, and not supplant, what is offered by our school districts.
States like Alabama and Florida should be commended for taking such bold steps forward to improve learning opportunities for their students.  The more options, the broader the options, the greater the chance for student success.  But we must do so the right way, with an emphasis on quality instruction, effective measurement, and real student learning.  Online learning is not the quick and easy path to education, nor is it earning a degree by drawing a turtle off the back of the matchbook.  It is designed to enhance and improve the overall learning process.  The medium is merely the tool, whether it be a classroom, a computer, a closed-circuit television network,
or a lecture hall of thousands.  The curriculum — and our expectations — don’t change.   

3 thoughts on “It’s Virtually the Same Thing

  1. How do we hold districts responsible for AYP if instruction and learning is happening beyond their classrooms [and beyond their classrooms]?Is this repetition intentional?Otherwise, provocative article, as always. Thanks!

  2. I absolutely agree that online education merits critical scrutiny (at least as much as, say, textbooks), but I think you should reconsider your statements that teachers don’t want to be “reduced to mere facilitators” and that communities don’t view instruction “as merely yet another commodity.” I have experienced several contrary examples, and it’s not such a bad thing for education to be commoditized (as it is already at post-secondary level). It may be that the only way to offer “education for all” is through delivery models that differ from the “education for a few” models of history.And anyway, whom should we entrust to scrutinize (or even regulate) online education? The school board? The teachers? The feds?One model is that of textbook purchasing: local school committees choose their online courses from a pool of bidders. This is in fact happening in smaller states that don’t have statewide adoptions, and it is in fact saving districts money and giving them more choices. Maybe that sounds like a let’s-privatize-everything catchphrase, but really it’s more about the Information Age catching up to the textbook industry (finally).I will say that I don’t believe that I can trust the teacher in my child’s classroom any more than I can trust an e-learning vendor in India (I feel I need to monitor either one). Weakly-regulated online education can’t be much worse than ineffectively-overseen public school classrooms.After years considering such issues, I have come to the conclusion that teachers should rise to the level of professionalism and certification of say, doctors and lawyers (and also establish the education equivalent of AMA or Bar Association). Then perhaps the field of education could effectively define, measure, and enforce standards of practice. Until, then, “caveat parens.”

  3. I hate the idea of virtual learning. I will admitt that with certain circumstances, they are convenient. If a student is trying to graduate college on time, or if a student is constantly changing schools because of a parent’s career, I see no problem with online education. However, I do not believe the quality of instruction for online courses is anywhere near what the quality would be in the classroom. Students need that direct contact with a teacher who is always present to help answer their questions. Virtual education will only reinforce the fact that students can be lazy and still acquire a degree of diploma. I agree totally with that concept that parents are the one’s to blame. Parents are to blame for not staying in one location so their children cannot become comfortable in a school setting. Parents are to blame for not getting their children up in the morning for school. Parents are to blame for their children being lazy and desiring to take the easy way out of acquiring a quality education. Virtual education should be something that is used in special instances, not a perminant alternative.

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