This morning I listened to Kim Ross, principal of Minnesota's first online high school, give a keynote speech to a group of educators in Southeast Minnesota. I can't say that he said anything that we have not heard before. It was a good talk about how the world is changing and about how online education allows for teachers to individualize instruction and focus more on relationships with their students. He gave a general overview of the theory of disruptive innovation in education and drew special attention to how this individualization of instruction made possible by online learning was the disruptive force, not the technology.
In the past few years schools have been looking at online education as a major disruptive force. We have seen exponential growth in enrollment in online schools and as a result a lot of our traditional brick and mortars have seen a decline. It has been widely thought, and I must confess that for a long time I have counted myself among those holding this belief, that schools need to modify their programs to draw upon what is happening in online education to improve what they do and make instruction more individualized. In answer to this we have seen a slew of measures taken by traditional school systems in an attempt to capitalize on this theory and retain students. Many schools have tried offering their own online courses, others have invested heavily in technologies like interactive whiteboards with the thought that if only they made the presentation of class theatrics more visually appealing students would be more engaged, and other schools have experimented with hybrid courses which are primarily online courses augmented with periodic face to face meetings.
None of these solutions ever really felt right to me but I have only recently been able to make enough sense of what I have been thinking to articulate it. Perhaps the rise in enrollment in online schools has very little to do with the quality of education they offer and more to do with declining relevance of schools in general. I have noticed and I have spoken with many teachers who have observed that in the past few years student motivation to meet deadlines, to attain a good grade, and to complete all of their work has been on the decline. What worked to motivate students to "achieve" five years ago isn't working today for a large percentage of our students. "Its like they don't care if they pass my class."
What has changed in the past five years? What are kids doing today that they were not doing, or able to do before? What they are doing is learning. They are learning on their own in ways that were not really possible before. Through highly engaging Montessori-like online learning environments like YouTube, Flickr, fansite forums, Myspace, Facebook, etc. they are learning deeply about the things that interest them and are relevant to them. The scale has shifted to a point where the technologies available to learn deeply about anything online on your own has in large part outperformed what our school pedagogies and our school systems can compete with.
To illustrate this, take the following video as an example. What is this kid doing in this video? How is he using the technology to aid in his learning? Does he need school to help him learn? What is the broad implication of this? It is worth seeing this video on the YouTube page and reading through the comments he has received (click here).
Do online schools do this? No, not really, but what they do is offer a credential just like students can get at a traditional brick and mortar, only online allows a student to endure the arduous and tedious task of schooling at their own pace and in their own time. Online schools allow students the ability to let their own interest-driven learning to take a front seat and take top priority. The asynchronous nature of the majority of online instruction means that it is not getting in the way of the learning activities that are really meaningful to kids. It is not that online learning or individualized instruction in an online school are so much better than that which students receive face to face in a traditional brick and mortar, it is that online schools don't get in the way.