One should probably never publish a blog on a Friday afternoon, but i’ll be pushing out three posts next week, so here’s my chance to rant before the weekend.
Ok, so it took me a month to find the NY Times Op-Ed, “The Trouble with Online Education”, and while I’m sure many of my fellow eLearning conspirators have addressed the editorial’s flaws, I’d like to share my view.
The contributor, Mark Edmundson, is a college professor who thinks deeply about what it takes to conduct a great face-to-face college course and he writes sincerely about understanding the group of students that are in front of him so that he can take them from where they are to where he’d like them to be intellectually. He speaks to the importance of dialogue, varied assessments, and reading his audience so that he can adjust his course on the fly. All traits of a great teacher.
Mark believes, though, that online education is “one size fits all.” I must say that college courses could be the same: boring lectures that haven’t been updated in years; assessments limited to multiple choice tests that are easy to grade; and impersonal. College courses and professors come in all flavors.
So do online courses. You can look at the world of online learning and see specific courses that fit Mark’s description: boring lectures; little or no opportunities for formal or informal discussions; teaching and learning activities that rarely go beyond knowledge and comprehension; limited assessment types; and the inability of the course, because of its construction, to understand where students are starting. Just as there are terrible college professors and courses, there are poor online courses.
It doesn’t have to be, though. Memorable online courses can provide a collaborative space for teachers and students. Great online courses and the learning management systems that contain them can offer a variety of discussion areas; offer rich curriculum and multimedia with links to extension activities; and they can be singular when students need to learn or study on their own or they can provide frequent meeting opportunities “live” or asynchronous in nature. Great face-to-face learning activities can be transported online so that students are challenged to evaluate, analyze, and create. Or not. Online courses come in many flavors.
Mark ends his Op-Ed by saying, “Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.” I know. I’ve taken lots of face-to-face college courses where I felt alone in a room of 300.
Great face-to-face courses, and great online courses, are made, not born.
Children are cute. We spoil them, tell stories about how perfect they are, and ignore their imperfections. We’re amazed at each new skill they learn: rolling to crawling; speaking their first words; potty training; and learning to read. We just love that they are in our lives.
And then they become teenagers, and their flaws become all too apparent.
In real life, there are two types of parents: those to see their teen’s flaws and work to help their child become a responsible adult; and those who turn a blind side to their child’s imperfections, preferring instead to complain about others who bring their child’s flaws to light.
And so it is with online learning.
Online and blended learning is about to leave childhood, where it often looked cute and cuddly. People would stop and complement how nice it was that eLearning had entered our family, making it more complete and providing comfort to our non-consumer students.
But, eLearning was a child, growing a little more each year; learning new skills while expanding in size. We all thought it was so special, this child that came into our lives. Like all children, we often ignored eLearning’s flaws, focusing instead on its specialness. Some didn’t appreciate our child’s behavior, though, and felt we should discipline it more. Many of us, though, wanted to create the conditions where eLearning could grow and thrive.
Yes, eLearning is special. So were digital cameras in 1999, just before its tipping point, but I wouldn’t ever want a 1999 version of a digital camera. We knew digital photography was special, and recognized it would change our relationship with picture taking. Still, 1999 cameras were low resolution, expensive, clunky, and had few features. We loved them anyway, while acknowledging their flaws. We had great hopes that, over time, they would mature into the healthy adult they are today.
And so it is with eLearning.
Online learning is entering puberty. We dotted on it as a child and saw in it such potential as an adult. Too many of us, though, continue to ignore this child’s flaws, even to the point of criticizing those who dare to point them out. But children, disruptive innovations in their own right, become established sustaining innovations, growing and changing each year, up to and through adulthood.
As a teenager, eLearning’s limitations are coming to light. Many courses tend to be text-centric; their assessments primarily multiple-choice; and their activities rarely going beyond knowledge and comprehension. That doesn’t mean I don’t love this child. I do and I see the incredible potential this child has. However, if I want eLearning to mature, it’s my job as a parent, it’s our job as a village, to help this child mature. We all have a stake in this child’s future. How, or if, online learning matures depends on the type of parent we choose to be. A parent that continues to spoil the child, discounting flaws and turning a blind side to facts; or one that loves the child but sets the conditions and creates an environment for the child to grow and mature.
As one of the village members watching eLearning transition into adolescence, I see its great potential to be an incredible adult. I believe formative assessments will actually determine a student’s path through the content, reteaching using different examples or pedagogies and providing multiple learning paths until a student becomes proficient. I believe courses will have challenging, authentic activities, requiring students to create, analyze, and evaluate. I believe courses will include a combination of text, short lectures, rich media, interactive simulations, and online discussions. I believe that multiple-choice tests will be just one type of assessment in future courses and that assessment types will be determined by the skill being assessed.
More importantly, I believe our eLearning adolescent won’t reach adulthood unless we create the conditions for its transition into adulthood.That includes being frank about both it’s strengths AND its problems.
Disclaimer: Before moving to the Stanislaus County Office of Education, I taught English, Drama, and Computers at a junior high for 20 years. Each of those 20 years brought many examples of children transitioning through childhood into puberty. Some children were better prepared for the transition; some were ready for adulthood; and some, I suspected, would take longer to “bloom.” Still, my job as a teacher was to help my students, my customers, mature into responsible adults. Yes, teenagers have flaws: they’re awkward; they’re trying out friends; and they’re shedding childhood. They’re not perfect, though. We, teachers and parents, do them great harm by not helping them prepare for adulthood.
With online and blended learning growing at double-digit rates and sliding past the tipping point, publishers and schools are both getting into the course creation business. It’s a little bit of the Wild West out there and we expect new publishers will appear on a regular basis. Remember when there were dozens of textbook companies? Eventually, the market consolidated to the three primary textbook publishers we see today, but until that happens, we’ll be tracking eLearning’s evolution. Still, like early digital cameras just before their tipping point, some eLearning courses are primitive, two-dimensional, and, well, boring.
There. I said it. Some emperors have pretty ugly clothes.
However, as this disruptive innovation continues to mature, we strongly believe that courses will increase in complexity and sophistication. Capitalism and competition will drive publishers to increasingly raise the bar, offering more engagement, media, and assessment choices.
For now, though, through our experiences with a wide variety of online and blended courses, I’d like to share some thoughts about what a great online course should (and should not) be, whether you’re creating your own or if you’re about to go shopping for one.
1. A Textbook is not a course
What if a teacher threw a book at you and said, “Read this and take the tests at the end of each chapter. When you’re finished, you’ve passed the course”? Would you choose that teacher or curriculum for your child? Would you recommend that course to others? What are the odds that an average or struggling student would complete the course, or better, be proficient in its skills? What do you think the AYP of this class would be compared with an engaging face-to-face course? A great course should include textbook content, but if teaching and learning doesn’t extend beyond the page, and the course is primarily limited to reading, you’re better off throwing a kid a book and locking her in a room with it.
So, if a textbook isn’t a course, why do so many courses look and feel line one?
2. Your course should be better than the worst teacher in my school.
The Ferris Bueller clip below is my generation’s idea of a boring teacher.
Aim higher than this economics teacher. Much higher. Please. Because in some cases, I’d rather send my child to this f2f class.
3. There can’t be quality outputs without quality inputs.
I understand the outcomes-based performance indicators movement promoted by iNACOL, Michael Horn, and others and I look forward to an agreed-upon set of evaluation criteria that can be applied to both virtual and brick-and-mortar schools. Still, until these metrics are created and standardized, we’ll all be subject to our current criteria: course completions, graduation rates, drop-out rates, and Annual Yearly Progress (AYP).
But for me, it’s Garbage In, Garbage Out. You can’t have quality outputs unless you begin with quality inputs. As Charles Babbage was asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?”
Students learn more from active discussions than from traditional lectures, and they need instructors who can engage them in the material, notes Diane Johnson, assistant director of faculty services at the Center for Online Learning at Florida’s St. Leo University. “Teacher quality is still a very important part of success in an online course, but so, too, is the course design,” Johnson says.
Teacher quality & course design. Quality In. Quality Out.
4. Just what part of the “Accessible” memo didn’t you get?
Your school built wheel chair ramps even though you may not have had any students with that need because some day a parent, student, or teacher WILL have that need. You also did it because the Federal government made you, but it was the right thing to do, yes? Of course. We want all students to have equal access to a quality education.
Should that be any different with online courses? eLearning’s equivalent of a wheel chair ramp is accessible media, particularly narrated presentations and video lectures.
Accessibility requirements for electronic media was confirmed by a US Department Of Justice letter to college presidents. In it, the DOJ reviewed its lawsuit against universities that had piloted the Kindle DX, which the DOJ won because the Kindle DX did not have a text to speech function. The letter states, “It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.”
Accessibility criteria for online courses was pioneered by the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) which has created a detailed site, TxVSN Accessibility, with advice, criteria, and check lists. Here are their Accessibility Guidelines.
One of CLRN’s requirements when reviewing courses is that all narrated presentations and videos include transcripts or Closed Captions.
So, yes, when you’re constructing an online course, your customers, and the Office of Civil Rights, expects that course materials are accessible. There are free resources to assist you, including Universal Subtitles, which can be used to embed captions within YouTube videos.
Make use of them.
5. Consistency between courses is key
We’ve noticed that often two online courses taught in sequence, like English I and English II or Algebra I and Geometry, have very different levels of interactivity and engagement, as if they were created by two very different teams who weren’t talking to each other. While one course may have a variety of media, narrated presentations, and video lectures, the companion course would not. The basic pedagogy of each course would be the same, as if course developers were working from a template, but one course would be significantly weaker than the other.
My advice? Hire great educators to develop your courses and make sure a separate person is in charge of quality control. Include textbook snippets, but make sure lessons are embedded with short video lectures, discussions, collaboration opportunities, and media.
6. Formative Assessments Should Inform Instruction
Too often, as in most cases, they don’t.
If a student is struggling, a formative assessment is where we first discover his difficulty in grasping a concept or idea. If, after failing a formative assessment, your course just passes the student on to the next unit without 1) reteaching or 2) informing the teacher there may be a problem, you’re competing with my worst teacher for last place.
There’s a reason teachers love “clickers”. They enable teachers to instantly assess whether students comprehend concepts and they offer “just-in-time” teachable moments if students don’t.
Formative assessments, generally short multiple-choice quizzes, don’t have to be graded. They DO need to be an opportunity to determine whether a student is grasping a concept. When students have difficulty, the course should attempt to reteach using new examples or new methods until the student is ready to move on.
Otherwise, your course isn’t much better than a book.
7. Vary Your Assessments
You do know there are other assessment types besides multiple-choice, yes? Then why do so many courses use multiple chose tests exclusively? It’s fairly common for a course to have frequent formative assessments, consisting of a few multiple-choice questions that gauge a student’s progress. That’s great, and often appropriate. However, when multiple-choice tests are used exclusively in a course, you’ll never know whether a student has synthesized course concepts.
There’s a reason principals frown when teachers park themselves at the school Scantron machine scoring quizzes. Sometimes a multiple-choice test IS the best way to test knowledge. However, it’s never appropriate to use it exclusively. A great online course should have a variety of assessments, some which provide feedback about knowledge and comprehension, while others challenge students to apply, create, analyze and evaluate. The less a test is “Googleable”, the better chance you’ll have of actually evaluating student progress.
Here at CLRN, we’re beginning to review the California eLearning Census data in preparation for a white paper to be released late summer. To augment current census numbers, we’re beginning to inport virtual school attendance data from California’s annual school census taken each October and released in late spring. The California Basic Educational Data System results for all schools can be accessed through DataQuest, which is where we found virtual student populations for the 14 virtual schools that didn’t participate in the eLearning Census. Being a snapshot taken in early October, it doesn’t reflect growth during the school year. For example, the October count for California Virtual Academy @ Los Angeles was 4897 while the spring eLearning Census report was 5100. Still, CBEDS & DataQuest allow us to track student attendance over time, which is the focus for this brief post and a taste for what you can expect in the white paper.
Let’s start with how attendance has increased at the 10 California Virtual Academies, all independent direct-funded charter schools managed by K12, Inc. Attendance in 2009/10 was 10,379, which grew to 11,256 in 2010/11, an 8% increase. This year, the Academies report 13,125 students, representing a year-to-year growth of 17%. The chart below tracks their growth.
Compare the above chart with those below representing growth at the Rocketship schools, direct-funded charters emphasizing the Rocketship rotation method of blended learning. Of the five Rocketship schools, only two have been open three years. Their year-to-year growth was 10% in 2010/11 and 12% this year.
Three Rocketship schools have been operating at least two years, and the chart below represents their 17% year-to-year growth, which is identical to California Virtual Academy growth. Being a two-year chart, though, skews the growth line.
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.