Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What is Online Learning Anyway?

Yesterday I attended a brainstorm/information session about the possiblity of creating some online hybrid classes for some of the schools in our consortium. The rational for such a move would be to try to keep students enrolled in our schools who might be tempted to transfer to an online school. While the intentions with this are good there are some fundamental questions that this raised for me.

First, why do students choose to attend an online school? I know from also working for an online provider that many online schools attract students who normally would not attend tradional public school. These include students who would otherwise be homeschooled, students who have had problems in their traditional settings ranging from bullies to expulsion, students who have physical disabilities that prevent them from leaving their homes, and students who are not challenged in a classroom where the teacher has to teach to the middle child. Which of these students would be served by a hybrid class? Certainly families who want to keep their children at home would prefer homeschooling or 100% online instruction to a hybrid. Students who leave because of problems with bullies most likely won't escape that problem in a hybrid class where they might meet with those students once or twice a week. If we expel a student we are excluding them from a hybrid class as well. This leaves a narrow margin of students who would be better served because a hybrid course might provide a more customizable learning environment. Then, if a learning environment can be customized in a hybrid setting for some students why not apply the same principles to all instruction?

Second, what benefits are there to online learning above F2F instruction? It seems the biggest benefit to online learning is customization. Students in online schools can often login and do their work whenever it best suits them. Learning plans can be customized much easier for online students because in large part they work in isolation or at most in very small groups. Additionally, when a student is in a classroom full of other students in a traditional setting they can opt to learn passively. It is not possible to be a passive learner in an online class. Passivity in an online class is the equivalent of truancy. So, the two big advantages to online learning are customization and active learning.

Third, how could online instruction benefit from a f2f component? It seems the only thing that really is lacking in online instruction are strong syncronous learning experiences. Lectures can be recorded and watched. Engaging projects can be assigned that promote self-directed learning and inquiry. And the computer can be used to automate many assessments. What is left? Field trips, class discussion, and some forms of experiential learning (lab and studio projects). Therefore, in a hybrid setting the f2f component should be reserved for reflective dialog and experiential learning.

Fourth, where do these students go if for the rest of the day they have to follow a traditional bell schedule? If a student is enrolled in one hybrid course but are still in their classes for the rest of the day it seems to negate one of the benefits of a hybrid course: flexible scheduling. If a student still has to abide by a bell schedule for seven of eight hours of the day but has one hour somewhere in the middle for a hybrid, what are they doing for that hour on days they don't meet? Do they work alone in the media center? Do they go home just to turn around and come right back almost after they walk in the door? It seems this can only work if a student has a lot of hybrid classes. For instance, maybe they come to school in the morning for a traditional schedule but only have hybrid classes in the afternoon. That way they might only be in school one full day and the rest of the week they have the option of spending a whole afternoon on each class or spreading out the workload over time. The only way this works is if enough classes are offered this way. If only a handful of courses are offered this way the project is doomed for failure because one of the big advantages is negated.

Fifth, what is online learning anyway? Online learning is a term we hear a lot and it is generally used as a term to describe schooling done on the computer. This has come to be seen as somewhat revolutionary but to those who don't understand it it sounds like a one-size-fits-all scenario. It seems ridiculous to lump this into a category for a model of learning. Would you ever say that you are enrolling in a book learning option or a video learning option? Learning is learning and good learning should utilize all relevant modes. This includes online tools and resources as well as text, video, games, face-to-face, experiential learning, and every other mode or model we have. The online tools and resources that make online schools possible are really just another tool at the disposal of teachers in any setting. Any class can be a hybrid class. The question is whether or not those tools fit learning objectives or whether or not they make fiscal sense for the school system.


Anonymous said...

Although your post makes a great statement to the idea of hybrid classes to "keep" students from deflecting to online schools, sometimes kids leave because the system isn't working.
At this point, my son has been enrolled in online school for one full year and plans to re-enroll for next fall.
Your statements seem to suggest that there is something wrong with the kids that leave public school, they are disabled or have other problems, how about the schools being unable to provide adequate services for them? Although your post is 2 years old, the situation is much worse in our community because of the budget cuts and this has left school districts in disarray. I am glad that I pulled my son out of public school, they don't know what they are doing anymore.

Carl Anderson said...


I certainly don't mean to suggest that there is anything at all wrong with students who leave public school. Where there is a problem is with the conception most educators and administrators in traditional schools have of what a "normal" student should look like. The fact is that this concept, which largely went unchallenged for more than a century, is fundamentally flawed and the migration to online schools is an indicator of this. With any kind of school choice the students who first leave the traditional mainstream setting for the alternative option are usually ones who don't fit this systemic misconception. This was, in part, what this post was originally about. I want you to know that I fully support online education as an option for families (I even work part-time for an online school) and work every day as a reflective educator, blogger, technology integration specialist, and social commentator to improve the quality of public education wherever you find it.