I am becoming increasingly alarmed at the interest in “computer courses” not only in higher education, but in the k-12 setting. A friend recently handed me an article from Phi Delta Kappan titled Cyber skepticism. As I read through the article my heart pounded out of my chest with the description of online learning advocates. “Rather than supplementing the work of traditional brick-and-mortar schools, they (advocates)see online education replacing neighborhood schools. And they are making inroads.” I immediately shouted, “Who is doing this?” Then I thought of my school district who is rumored to be developing virtual lessons for students who are sent to “in school suspension” and need instruction for the day. Is this what students need?
There is a propensity for decision makers in education to throw out trending terms like technology,MOOCs, virtual classrooms, flipped classrooms, Smartboards and Apple t.v.’s (the latest) without an understanding of purpose or best practice. These trendy terms are tied to grants and “district initiatives” and teachers are flooded with expectations. Soon the wind will blow, and a new trend will gust littering the to do list of educators with mandates. What is different with technology is that it is not going away, and it shouldn’t. The technologies that pop up daily are fantastic tools to inspire creativity, connections and inspiration. Our ability to connect to one another and to access content is opening education up to endless possibilities. What is difficult for me to grasp is replacing our face to face teaching with online instruction, with little understanding of pedagogy and best practice. In his article Cyber Skepticism Jack Schneider discusses the arguments for virtual schools by advocates being that students can customize their curriculum and pace. In addition students without access to great teachers and schools based on geographical location, would be given access. While those arguments are valid, we must understand our learners and that the goals for our students are not just that they gain knowledge of content, but knowledge of self.
My observations of school systems failing is not so much based on teachers who do not have knowledge of content, or who lack the ability to teach. It is based on a lack of presence. Schools are becoming so assessment centered, but not to inform us about the learners needs rather to inform the state on how our students are competing.
The research of best practices in instruction (Garrison, Chickering & Gamson and Bransford to name a few) is that best instructional practices come from a community of learners. Students are successful in knowledge of content and self when spaces are learner-centered, knowledge-centered, community centered and assessment-centered (Bransford et al., 1999). We develop a triadic relationship between learner, content and instructor. The community of inquiry (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001) overlaps teaching presence, cognitive presence and social presence that develops the learners knowledge of content and knowledge of self as learner. In our public schools we have become so overburdened with policies and mandates, we are forgetting to develop these personal connections to students and content. The cycle of blame on pop culture and innovations continues, when these influences have always been a part of adolescence. Teachers need to jump into the cycle and connect. We need to help learners understand themselves. If I have a student who struggles to read, I can’t throw my hands up in defeat of how low she is, I need to help her reflect on her abilities and begin to help the learner build a path to success. I am not saying that the burden should lie on the shoulders of the teacher. I see the need to overhaul the educational system, but not by adding more testing, and not by creating virtual schools.
To address the advocates of virtual schools, do we really think that all students are ready to customize their curriculum and pace? We need to look at how we are scaffolding a learners experience in school to learn to be self-regulated learners so that in time this would be a reality. The idea that online instruction will give those in rural or poor districts a chance, how will they access the schools? Do they have access to computers and internet? If the educational institutions in these areas is so bad then shouldn’t we change them?
Over the past century educational reform has been a doormat at the threshold education. We have added to our understanding of how learners are successful, but we have failed to put these understandings into practice.
So, who is jumping into this virtual landscape? In 2009-10 students in the k-12 setting took 1.8 million courses online and 250,000 students were enrolled full-time in virtual schools (Barth, Hull & St Andrie, 2012). Who are these 250,000 students? What is the allure of virtual schools? We need to know more!
I have been reading a lot about massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the debate on their ability to engage and address the needs of learners. I have been learning about connectivism and the branching off of MOOCs into cMOOCs and xMOOCs. With statistics that report thirty-two percent of students in higher education taking at least one online course, and the steady increase of higher education institutions offering MOOC courses, the question of the quality of education a MOOC can provide needs to be analyzed. The same is true for virtual schools. While these new tools in education are exciting and add to the educational landscape, we need to be cautious about how we use these tools. In addition we need to think about what our goals are for our students. While we want our students to gain knowledge of content, we need them to learn to connect and collaborate. Students need to learn how to socially interact, self regulate, compassion and empathy. We need for them to come together in spaces to problem solve, to go to spaces to create and to be comfortable in their own space and reflect. There is more to teaching beyond content, and my fear is we will lose sight of the many dimensions of education if we leap into the virtual world of education.