[The following is a guest post from a respected educator (and my good friend), Caleb Coy. You will find that Caleb offers some valuable insight into the risks and rewards of online learning. This is just the beginning of a dialogue. I hope you will join in. Enjoy!]
Virtual learning really began in the 60s with computer-assisted learning, but also had its roots in correspondence courses. Most people were completely skeptical of online learning until the millenium. In ’92 Congress passed a bill denying aid to any school that offered most of its courses online. Since then it’s been lifted. Today, online colleges have to be approved by government-approved agencies. However, a non-accredited college can offer all the online courses it wants.
Back in 2001 MIT came out with its “open courseware” program, offering lectures to the public. This inspired the “open teaching” movement. Now a lot of teachers provide their stuff to the public. Virtual learning is changing schools at an accelerated rate. And it’s controversial, because it changes how we think the very nature of what learning is and how it takes place.
Maybe you’ve seen one of these annoying commercials:
The appeal is strong: If you don’t like anything about how you’ve done school, there are so many benefits to virtual learning, among them the following:
- Do it on your own time.
- Avoid the perils of interaction.
- Avoid bullying.
- Save gas.
- Save money.
- Instruction is more easily customized.
There are perils as well, among them the following:
- Limited teacher interaction.
- Limited student interaction.
- Many argue it’s easier to cheat.
- Many argue it’s easier to get lazy.
- You have to have consistent and reliable internet access.
- Requires full self-planning instead of a schedule.
- Feedback is seldom immediate.
- What if the technology fails or has a glitch?
Certainly, online learning is a great litmus test for internal student motivation. It reveals a lot about what people expect from education, and from themselves.
We all know about the reputation for places like University of Phoenix, offering a completely online education, or the diploma mills that could give your pet pug a BS in Business if you just pay up.
But even some high schools are completely online now. Consider PA Cyber. No, it’s not an adult video site, it’s a charter school completely online. Students stay at home and video conference class with teachers online. The video below give the full story.
Here you can see the range of issues at play.
My experience with virtual learning has left me incredibly skeptical. I taught an online course in English Composition designed by another teacher one semester. The students had learning modules they were to go through, and then submitted assignments to me and I graded them. I had problems with the website, and so did students. I didn’t really know any of them at the end. The experience didn’t seem very rewarding.
Soon after, I took an online course in Assessment in education. I had to read through an entire textbook, one chapter a week. There was a multiple choice test to do each week, and a final one. That was all that was required. We could contact the teacher at any time with questions, but the problem was that the only way I could schedule things was if I read the chapter and took the quiz the day before it was due. There was no time to wait for feedback on a question. And the material in the book was very new to me. There was no interactive learning, only PowerPoint modules and a book.
I don’t have much faith in virtual learning. I would never recommend anyone get their entire degree online.
However, we are living in a tech world. You can’t avoid it. Students need experience learning online, I suppose, to succeed. When I saw this TED conference video, I was given some opportunity to consider how I could approach virtual learning with a handful of optimism:
Norvig brings up one grand point about virtual learning: Especially concerning what is sacrificed in the way of loss of personal connections, you really need to be creative with the process.
But even when we use virtual education, is there not still a text, a sage, and a guy sleeping in the back? When we teach, we are teachers, and what we teach is a text of some sort, a body of knowledge, and there will always be the sleepy guy in the back. And let’s not forget that Socrates was one of the most interactive of teachers. Did he not question his students over and over? And though the Greeks had writing, they didn’t use it all the time like we do. Aristotle showed his students the Parthenon and had them use the geometry of it to learn, in its very presence.
“Sitting in a bar, with a really smart friend, explaining something you’ve found really hard to grasp, but are about to.” We can only dream of such one-on-one tutoring. The filthy rich can find a tutor for their kids for life. When in graduate and doctoral programs, we are often guaranteed such mentors if we want them. If you go to a tutoring center you can have that for a few moments. As an English teacher, I find many of my students learn best when I tutor with them individually.
Making this happen online can be easy if you have the resources. Could these guys pull this off in a public school deprived of federal and state funding?
I didn’t feel I was “actively practicing” when I was taking that Assessment class, just answering questions out of a book that, incidentally, defends standardized tests as essential to education. I had no way of knowing if my students were “actively practicing” in the online class I taught.
“We didn’t want students to memorize the formulas; we wanted them to change the way they look at the world.” This is great. Well, I’m sure they need to memorize some formulas, but the latter goal is the better. There’s no sense in giving students the keys to changing the world if they don’t know how to change the world.
Norvig also had a great solution to the problem of accountability to one’s own learning. Since students are lazy and can always put off tomorrow what is never due, he made it so that even the material can only be experienced within a certain time frame.
Let’s look at some innovations that really should be included in virtual education, not because it’s virtual education, but because it’s necessary to education in the first place:
- Group Discussion
- Peer Tutelage
- Motivation and Determination, not just Information
Then he talks about further innovations. What should they be? Given that Norvig talks about these innovations only bringing virtual education back to the principles that govern traditional education, perhaps we need merely to look at the innovations that excel traditional education:
- Field trips. Give students options for taking outings to places where they can explore new knowledge at various locations.
- Creative projects. Have students create something to show to other students in groups, along with discussing the content they have learned.
- Portfolio grading. The trouble with online courses is that they’re usually designed to grade tests. Devise a system where portfolios of work could be graded.
- Guest speakers. There is greater opportunity for this when guest speakers can interact with the class from around the world, and with more convenience working without strictures of place.
- Service learning. Students can apply what they learn to helping others in the community. With virtual learning, especially throughout the world, the possibility of networking can help ideas spread that apply knowledge to tasks that help communities. After all, is education just for future “success in the marketplace” or does it also encompass citizenship, service, and morality?
Even amidst all this, I find it important that “teachnology” be used to serve education, and not the other way around. And that’s not a new idea either. But technology should only be used when it actually improves the education situation, not just because the world is “going digital”. When radio came along we didn’t decide to end public schooling and just have students sit in their living rooms and hear lectures on radio. Why? Several reasons: They need interaction, they need teachers to be there, not every kid had a radio, even back then their attention spans would not have lasted so long hearing lectures. Yet at the same time, radio could have been used more than it was to help learning (I’m not aware of any ways in which it was used in schools).
When online classes are merely linear, they are usually dull experiences. They may provide some information and be an easy grade for some, but these experiences run counter to everything the human experience in education should be.
I recall Wendell Berry’s rules for new tools from his 1987 article, “Why I’m Not Going to Buy a Computer”. Interesting perspective.
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
So now it’s your turn, folks. What do you think about all this? What have been your experiences with virtual education? What innovations do you think could help keep the rise of virtual education from becoming a machine in service of technology companies instead of a tool in service of people learning?
[Read more from Caleb Coy at http://calebcoy.wordpress.com/ ]