Learning Online Ain’t Easy

Online Learning

At this point we have universities, K12 schools, and even entire school districts that have closed in the face of the COVID-19 virus, with many shifting instruction to “online”, whatever that may mean. Many others are drawing up contingency plans for shutting down.

Which is where we find our overly-large school district. Monday the kids get a holiday while schools will have “an opportunity for staff to prepare for the possibility of distance learning in the event of a school(s) closure”. But we can’t forget the important stuff: “All after-school extracurricular activities on March 16, including interscholastic contests and team practices, will proceed as scheduled.”.

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Confessions of a Dropout

I’m a failure.

Over the past couple of years I’ve enrolled in four different MOOCs, and never completed any of them. Five if you count the one I tried twice. I dropped the most recent course before the first unit even began.

After attracting all kinds of hype in 2013, not to mention plenty of venture capital and the blessing of high profile business writers, why haven’t MOOCs been more successful for the students (aka clients/customers)? More importantly, why hasn’t the format worked for me?

Maybe I didn’t read the course description carefully enough and never should have registered in the first place. In at least one case the description didn’t match the content. I suppose the reason for my being a dropout could be that the MOOC format just isn’t appropriate for my temperament. Or I’m just a crappy student.

In any case I’m not alone in being a serial dropout.  One recent study found that only about 10% of MOOC students complete the requirements for a course. I’ve seen other research showing completion numbers above that but far south of 25%. And the research provides far more questions than answers.

For my personal experience with the format, it certainly is not about lack of experience or comfort with working online. I’ve taught1 “regular” online courses for three different organizations since 2000 and successfully completed many others as a student. Although, with 20 – 30 people in a class, none of them could be considered massive.

However, for me the size of the course didn’t matter as much as the community feeling. That element was missing in the MOOCs. The organizers of the courses always try to build participant interactions into their units but with thousands of people involved, those efforts always seemed forced, and even more awkward than many online discussions already are.

So, what does my experience with MOOCs mean to the future of the concept? Likely, very little. After all, successful businesses (including educational ones) have been built by servicing only 10% of the available customer base.

And there’s no reason why one particular delivery system for learning should meet the needs of every single student. Right, Sec. Duncan? Mr. Gates? Ms. Rhee? Bueller?

Photo from Flickr by the University of Iowa, used under a Creative Commons license.

The Revolution Will Be Crowded

According to Thomas Friedman, there’s a revolution coming in post K12 education and he uses this “rather charming” explanation from Andrew Ng, associate professor of computer science at Stanford and cofounder of the online course delivery company Coursera, to illustrate his point.

“I normally teach 400 students,” Ng explained, but last semester he taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning. “To reach that many students before,” he said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.”

Friedman raves about this approach, saying that it would give more students access to “quality higher education” at a cost that’s much lower than the fast-rising price of attending in person.

He also marvels that this would “enable budget-strained community colleges in America to “flip” their classrooms” by having students watch recordings of “the world’s best lecturers on any subject”.

However, is that what people want from a college education? Can you call what Ng does “teaching”, or is it more about managing a large group of self-directed learners? For someone who isn’t self-directed, is the only alternative then accumulating a pile of student loans?

As someone who wasn’t thrilled by most of my undergraduate classes in college and actually likes self-directed learning, this is not judgement, just questions.

I also wonder, just as college-level classes were pushed down into high school in the form of the AP program, when will this type of massive approach to instruction arrive for us here in K12?

A district accountant somewhere is probably already thinking that one teacher working with only 150 kids per year sounds awfully expensive.

Learning to Work Online

Last week our governor signed a bill requiring high school students in the state to take at least one online course to graduate, beginning with the class of 2017.

I’m still not sure why.

A spokesperson for the governor says the new requirement will “better prepare students for the job market of the 21st century”*.

I don’t understand how.

I’ve been facilitating online course for adults off and on for more than ten years. I took my first virtual class back in the days of the dial-up modem when the content was little different from correspondence courses that were snail mailed to your home.

That certainly doesn’t make me an expert on the matter, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about online learning is that it’s not the right solution for everyone. Some people don’t work well detached from the human contact that comes with a face-to-face situation.

Supporters of this idea argue that kids need to learn to work online because jobs increasingly demand those skills (now that we’re more than 10% of the way into the 21st century).

I agree. But is a formal course, especially one that is likely to be a virtual replica of a face-to-face class, necessarily the best solution?

More important than learning to take an online course – a somewhat narrow skill set that really only benefits the growing post-secondary education business – we should be helping students understand how to present themselves online. Allowing them to practice crafting messages for different audiences using a variety of delivery tools as part of their “standard” curriculum.

If you look carefully at that “job market” of the 21st century (which is now), workers increasingly need to know how to market themselves and learn new skills (often on the fly) to adapt for an ever changing employment landscape.

Is taking a canned online course going to help with any of that? I doubt it.

*Has anyone else noticed that we are already more than 10% into the 21st century and still our “leaders” discuss it as if it’s still in the distant future?

Putting Classes on the Web is Not Enough

In the op-ed section of the Post this week, a writer identified as an editor at Reason magazine says that our traditional school system isn’t working so she has a simple solution: move learning online.

Her reasoning follows the same path as that followed by others who believe in the web as a platform for self-service education.

So children continue to learn from blackboards and books — the kind made of dead trees! no hyperlinks! — rather than getting lessons the way they consume virtually all other information: online. Putting reading materials and lecture notes on the Internet, like many teachers do today, is just the first step; it’s like when, in the early days of movies, filmmakers pointed a camera at a stage play. Kids are still stuck watching those old-style movies, when they could be enjoying the learning equivalent of “Avatar” in 3-D. Thousands of ninth-grade English teachers are cobbling together yet another lecture on the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s day, when YouTube is overflowing with accessible, multimedia presentations from experts on Elizabethan theater construction, not to mention a very nice illustrated series on the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge site.

So, what is the URL for that “learning equivalent of “Avatar” in 3D”?

Anyway, she makes some good points about the outdated educational structure we currently have, especially the archaic concept of kids putting in enough “seat time” to earn the required points to punch their exit ticket from a particular class.

However, as with the similar argument in the book Disrupting Class, I’m not convinced that simply moving classes, using the same curriculum and assessments, online would be a cure for everything that ails American education.

Viewing web-based lectures, reading the textbook, playing around with some embedded activities, and taking a test – the format used for much of what passes for online classes – does not qualify as “reform”.

There’s also the matter that students who are successful in online classes are very self-motivated, which excludes many in both high school and college.

On the other hand, there’s no good reason for every student, especially in high school, to show up every day at a specific building for a fixed number of hours when at least part of their work could be done anytime from anywhere.

Just moving classes online is not the solution to an education system that’s isn’t working for an increasing number of kids.

Hybrid classes, part face-to-face and part online, combined with a complete overhaul of the curriculum and how we assess learning, makes much more sense.