Students Learning Online

April 6th, 2011

At the Harlan Institute, and in my classroom, I have been a proponent of using technology to enhance education for today’s generation of students.

The Times has a lengthy piece titled More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality. This article discusses the pros and cons of schools allowing students to learn online.

Mr. Hamilton, 18, is among the expanding ranks of students in kindergarten through grade 12 — more than one million in the United States, by one estimate — taking online courses.

Advocates of such courses say they allow schools to offer not only makeup courses, the fastest growing area, but also a richer menu of electives and Advanced Placement classeswhen there are not enough students to fill a classroom.

But critics say online education is really driven by a desire to spend less on teachers and buildings, especially as state and local budget crises force deep cuts to education. They note that there is no sound research showing that online courses at the K-12 level are comparable to face-to-face learning.

So how widespread are these programs?

In Idaho, the state superintendent of education plans to push a requirement that high-school students take four or more online courses, following a bill that passed the Legislature last week to provide every student with a laptop, paid for from a state fund for educators’ salaries.

Chicago and New York City have introduced pilot online learning programs. In New York, Innovation Zone, or iZone, includes online makeup and Advanced Placement courses at 30 high schools, as well as personalized after-school computer drills in math and English for elementary students.

The virtual high school says its list of client schools has grown to 770, up 34 percent in two years, because of local budget cuts.

Nationwide, an estimated 1.03 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-8, up 47 percent from two years earlier, according to the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education. About 200,000 students attend online schools full time, often charter schools that appeal to home-schooling families, according to another report.

Unsurprisingly, enrolling a student in an online course is cheaper than hiring a teacher. Teachers,and their unions, are not too happy.

But it is also true that Memphis is spending only $164 for each student in an online course. Administrators say they have never calculated an apples-to-apples comparison for the cost of online vs. in-person education, but around the country skeptics say online courses are a stealthy way to cut corners.

“It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the teachers’ union in Miami, where 7,000 high school students were assigned to study online in computer labs this year because there were not enough teachers to comply with state class-size caps.

“This is being proposed for even your youngest students,” Ms. Aronowitz said. “Because it’s good for the kids? No. This is all about cheap.”

Teachers’ unions and others say much of the push for online courses, like vouchers and charter schools, is intended to channel taxpayers’ money into the private sector.

“What they want is to substitute technology for teachers,” said Alex Molnar, professor of education policy at Arizona State University.

On the other hand, online courses can expose students to classes that local teachers simply cannot teach:

Reza Namin, superintendent of schools in Westbrook, Me., which faces a $6.5 million budget deficit, said he could not justify continuing to pay a Chinese language teacher for only 10 interested students. But he was able to offer Chinese online through the Virtual High School Global Consortium, a nonprofit school based in Massachusetts.

The Times also has a Room for Debate discussion on this topic.

One of the contributors makes a point I have made for some time. Students today live their lives online. Why shouldn’t they learn that way?

High school and middle school students are easily distracted, which is precisely why I do think they can benefit from online classes. . . . The majority of online classes for adolescent students involve a good deal of interaction with course materials and tutors that can be very engaging. . . . It seems to me online learning can actually be less distracting than being in a classroom of 30 students, provided the students have adequate access to computers.

Another contributor focuses on the value of social online learning experiences.

My colleagues and I have demonstrated that online environments focused on collaboration and action, rather than reading and test-taking, can be more social, creative, substantial and personally meaningful than traditional classes. Learning is no longer bound by artificial schedules, random teacher assignments or age segregation. Students feel more connected than in “school” where talking is the No. 1 infraction and teacher access is severely curtailed. When work is public, peers learn from it and support reciprocal growth. Everyone is a teacher and learner all of the time. The quality of work benefits from the extra time, collaboration and expertise.

The computer’s real power lies in how it allows kids to learn and do new things in new ways unimaginable just a few years ago. Done well, online learning could supplement classroom instruction, offer experiences otherwise impossible, support 24/7 learning and break down barriers of geography, wealth or culture. Today’s online education offers more for school “winners” and investors than it does for disenfranchised learners.

Finally, a third contributor makes a point I agree with–students and teachers already use technology to learn, why not exploit it? Stop worrying about whether kids are distracted by technology and start using it.

New digital tools are changing opportunities for learning for teachers and students alike. We know that many middle school and high school students already use technology on their own time to learn and create, for their own purposes or for school assignments. If they know where to look, they can access rich online communities that foster their imagination, offer informal mentorship and resources for learning.

Instead of wondering whether teenagers are too easily distracted by computers in the classroom, we should be figuring out how educators, designers and researchers can use digital media to nurture interest and the desire to learn and to tap the social environments online that can help build pathways to sustained learning in and out of school.

The Virtual High School, a leading virtual school, is prominently featured in this article.