How do online courses meet students’ needs? Why should every high school offer online courses to their students? One answer can be found in this letter to the Modesto Bee found in my local paper last week.
Letter to the Editor
May 17, 2012
I’ve been doing some reflection over the last couple of weeks as graduation approaches. I am a senior and have spent the last four years of my life attending Johansen High School. I was a cheerleader, an AP student, involved in many different clubs and have held various leadership positions. I believe that I received a very good education from Modesto City Schools.
As we draw closer to the end, the school would like the current students to go and promote Johansen to several different middle schools in an effort to boost the enrollment for next year. The problem is, the district is so busy cutting programs and extracurricular activities that students are choosing to attend other high schools.
I recently learned that speech and debate, drama and journalism have all been cut from next year’s schedule due to lack of funding. So what happens now? French 4 and Spanish 4 have not been offered at Johansen for quite some time now, and other higher-level classes may be next on the chopping block. As more classes are cut, it’s no wonder Johansen students are choosing to take their education elsewhere.
This high school, and many others across California have had to reduce low enrollment courses due to years of budget cuts. School Districts can’t afford a French 4 or an AP Calculus course if they can’t find 30 (or more likely 40) students who desire the same course. You can’t blame districts for fighting to stay alive fiscally. However, you can/must blame them for being shortsighted. Cutting language and high-level academic courses pushes away the very students who raise your API score, who graduate to prestigious colleges, and who will take their ADA to a school that will meet their needs.
Online learning, particularly the Self-Blend, is an easy way for districts to offer orphan courses to students. Don’t have 40 students for Spanish 4? No problem. Provide the five students who DO need it an online option. You’ll keep your ADA as well.
Last year, in Heather Staker’s landmark paper, “The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning”, the online learning community finally found its Occam’s razor, a simple, yet effective definition of blended learning. Last year, blended learning was defined as:
Blended learning is any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.
Staker’s admission that blended learning models would continue to evolve proved true in version two of her report, entitled “Classifying K-12 Blended Learning“, co-authored by Michael Horn.
In it, blended learning’s definition has also evolved to become more succinct. It now reads:
Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace and at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.
The updated definition is important for several reasons. First, by adding the qualifier “is a formal education program” they have separated blended learning from informal, unstructured learning such as students playing video games on their own. The second difference in this updated definition is the addition of another qualifier, “online delivery of content and instruction.” Here, they distance blended learning from supplementary online learning and tech rich classrooms. From the first computer labs in the 1980s, teachers have utilized software and online resources to supplement their curriculum. However, in no way could you classify these exercises, whether random or regularly scheduled, as online learning. The dividing line, as Heather states in her definition of Technology Rich Instruction, is student control of time, place, path and/or pace.
In all, the new blended learning definition now more clearly separates supplementary, tech rich activities from true online learning.
While the California eLearning Census won’t close until May 1st, the presentation below is a snapshot of the first 375 districts and direct-funded charters, representing 23% of all districts/charters. From the beginning, the data has startled me and has been incredibly consistent from the beginning. When i have time, i’ll create a narrated version of these slides using Hello Slide, a great Web 2.0 tool.
The eLearning Strategies Symposium, a joint partnership of Computer Using Educators and the California Learning Resource Network, is designed to bring together K-12 educators, policymakers, and industry around eLearning’s progress, direction, curriculum, policy, teaching and learning strategies, and professional development. The first annual eLearning Strategies Symposium will be held in Costa Mesa, CA on December 7th and 8th, 2012 with annual conferences alternating between northern and southern California.
Two session proposal windows are offered. During this Early Bird window, which closes April 27th, we’ll be filling two-thirds of the concurrent sessions. A shorter, Just in Time, proposal window opens mid-August and closes in mid-September for the final third. Speaker acceptances for the first round will be emailed May 9-11, 2012. All speakers will receive a complementary registration to the symposium. Industry-sponsored sessions must include a Corporate Partnership Application.
Symposium presentations should focus on one of eSS’ five strands:
Big Picture, which includes administration, management, evaluation, research, policy or advocacy;
Content (curriculum and online course development, best practices, accessibility, or instructional design);
Capacity Building (professional development);
Gear (tools, technologies, learning management systems, or application development); or
Pedagogy (engaging students, teaching and learning pedagogies, blended learning models, learning communities, or assessment).
With online and blended learning growing 20-25% each year and with more than 20,000 California students participating in virtual or blended learning, now is the time for a California conference focused on teaching and learning online. Please join us in Costa Mesa next December.
During the past 18 months, after I’ve delivered conference presentations about online learning, I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of answering questions from attendees as well as the opportunity to ask teachers and administrators about their online learning programs. In too many instances, I’m finding that districts haven’t thoroughly worked through a planning process that involved all stakeholders. Nor are districts carefully vetting online resources before purchase. Before we get to today’s sermon, I recommend you view a recent VW commercial entitled “Is it Safe?”
In this ad, we first see a young boy who is shopping for a bicycle asking the sales person,, “Is it fast?” The salesperson replies, “It’s got 10 speeds, my friend.”
The boy is a bit older and is shopping for a scooter. He asks the salesperson, “Is it fast?” and receives the reply, “It’s got a lightning bolt on it, doesn’t it?” As an older teen, he’s now shopping for a car and asks, “Is it fast?” and learns from the sales person, “Fast? I don’ t even know if it’s street legal.” In each case the consumer, in their search for a new product, trusts the salesperson as their sole source of information about the product. Is it fast? Is it safe? Sure. Ok, I’ll buy it.
This kid’s an idiot.
Sadly, too many school districts act just like him when they select online courses.
Yes, they do.
Do school and district administrators make their purchasing decisions based on a vendor ‘s presentation?
For proof beyond my anecdotal experiences, I direct you to the Technology and Telecommunications Subcommittee (TTSC) survey of districts about how they selected credit recovery programs. The actual survey results may be found here:
Asked to “Describe the selection process that was used by your agency to choose your Online Credit Recovery Program”, the most popular responses were: 1) vendor demonstrations; 2) webcast; 3) regional collaborative; 4) using iNACOL standards; and 5) open bid to vendors. Most of these selection criteria are no different from asking, “Is it fast?” Basing a teaching and learning solution on either cost or a vendor demonstration is as irresponsible as the teenager who buys the salesperson story that a scooter is fast because it has a lightning bolt on it.
So, how should you buy a car? First, given the importance of purchasing a new car, no one should rely on a single information source or filter. Just listening to a friend’s recommendation, a magazine ad, an online review, or a sales person’s pitch is folly. Some of these should be among the initial filters that determine whether the car might meet your needs. Your friend’s recommendation provides you personal experience and the online review tells you the car’s strengths and shortcomings. Once a car passes your initial selection criteria, your next step is to take the car out for a test drive. Sitting behind the wheel, you’ll discover how the car handles and whether its features are accessible and easy to understand. Is the car comfortable, does your family like it, and does it meet your needs? Then, and only then, should you begin price negotiations.
The same should be said for selecting online courses.
Perhaps your initial attraction to an online course or course publisher will take place in a magazine ad, through a friend’s recommendation, or in a conference exhibition hall. We recommend that you that begin by examining how the course meets both the content and course standards. Is the math or English-language arts course aligned to the Common Core State Standards? Are courses from other subjects aligned to your state standards? Has an independent agency confirmed those alignments? Online courses are more than just content, though. They also represent a learning platform with learning activities, lectures, formative assessments, and student-student engagement. To judge course quality, has the course been compared to iNACOL’s criteria for quality online courses? Doing so will tell you if the course content is rigorous, that activities are engaging and involve high order thinking skills, that students receive timely and frequent feedback, and that all materials are accessible to all students.
California, Texas and Washington all have online course review projects that review for content and course standards. The California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) reviews courses for their alignment to the Common Core State Standards. For each standard, CLRN evaluates whether the course demonstrates, practices, and assesses each skill. CLRN also compares courses to iNACOL’s 52 course criteria in the areas of content, instructional design, student assessment, technology, and course evaluation and support.
However, content standards and online course standards validation is just one filter you should consider when you select a course. Just as you would use Consumer Reports to narrow down your selections for your next car and CLRN to narrow down your course options, your next step is to visit the dealer to take a test drive. You don’t want to watch someone drive the car. Nor do you want the salesperson to drive. The best test drive is one where you take the car through a number of scenarios: turns, traffic, freeway, and parking. The same can be said of an online course test drive.
Ask your provider for both teacher and student accounts for the course. Most have demonstration sites where multiple test drivers are checking out a course, away from actual student data. Then, spend some time getting to know the course as a student. Select several units, complete all activities, and take the formative assessments. Now, be a gifted student who answers all the questions correctly. Do you find the course highly engaging? Are you challenged beyond knowledge and comprehension within the questions and activities?
Next, be a struggling student. Have trouble completing work. Fail the formative assessments. How does the course react? Does it provide alternative paths to proficiency or reteach using different examples or modalities?
Then, be a teacher, and check out the learning management system’s features. Can you add content to the course? Is it easy to communicate with students, set up discussions, and find student grades? Are there a variety of assessments beyond multiple-choice tests and are those assessments matched to the content?
Yes, ask your friends what courses they use, check out CLRN’s content and course standards review, and listen to the publisher as they describe and demonstrate the course. However, you must conclude by thoroughly participating in the course as a student and as a teacher. Then, and only then, will you know if the course is suited for your students.