A few thoughts about online learning

Last Wednesday, I attended an event that was part of a Mackinac Center series called “The Online Learning Revolution“. Speakers included William Skilling, Superintendent of Oxford Community Schools, Mike Flanagan, Michigan State Superintendent, and Bob Wise, former governor of West Virginia. “Online learning” was discussed both in terms of purely online learning, and in terms of “blended classrooms” that relied heavily on technology but still met in a building somewhere.

1. I think the biggest benefit to online learning is choice. I remember my own high school began offering Japanese when I was there via video conference – we would never have been able to offer Japanese otherwise. With online learning, a course developed by a university in California could be used by a rural high school in Maine. That’s awesome.

2. But, for traditional subjects taught by every school, I worry that we could get too obsessed with method. I think there is always this temptation to think that simply implementing some new method will solve all of our problems. But, I think a good teacher will find a way to be a good teacher even if all you give them is a blackboard and some chalk. A terrible teacher will still be a terrible teacher even if all their students have a $5000 computer.

3. One of the slogans tossed about was “any time, any place, any path, any pace”. I found it intriguing. For example, formerly all students had to spend a semester, say, in an algebra course, even if they got it immediately or never got it, and all students had to demonstrate their proficiency with an exam at the end. But we don’t have to teach that way any more – imagine instead a student sitting and learning at a computer, working at his/her own pace, demonstrating proficiency – and then moving on to the next subject! – whenever they were personally reading. And, of course, they needn’t learn in a classroom.

One of the problems in creating schools that follow this method is that schools in Michigan, my understanding was, are required to offer 180 days in classroom every year. With a full-online school, say, there would be zero days in classroom – that would be illegal! A waiver would be required. Bob Wise said it was a perfect example of how yesterday’s reform can be today’s impediment – the 180 day requirement was created to guarantee everyone a certain amount of education. Now it stands in the way of improving that education.

4. William Skilling said the recession was a great benefit to his schools because it forced them to innovate. I thought of another example of this phenomenon – the East Lansing Public Library, which recently installed a self-checkout in order to save money on staff. This technology has existed for some time, of course, and is beloved by patrons like me, but they never took advantage of it because they didn’t have to – eventually, lack of money forced them to. One more reason to vote against the next tax increase, I suppose.

That’s all! Sorry for the lack of blogging lately. I was sick for a time, and I’ve also been quite busy for someone who isn’t, at the moment, actively teaching.

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