Challenges to Online Learning: A Response
I’ve been keeping tabs on an interesting new blogging community, and they’re starting to put out some more “meatier” edu-thought that I can really engage with. EdReach is a group blog written by a bunch of pretty thoughtful and reflective educators based around all things related to education; gaming, online learning, Google, Macs, and commentary on technology news that impacts education are just a few of the topics covered on a regular basis on the EdReach network. The concept is something that’s been a long time coming, and an idea that I had once dabbled with back in the technological “stone age” (2005), before the dominance of social media platforms and technology that makes such a network easy to assemble and manage.
The article in question is a brief musing on the Challenges to Online Learning, written by John Sowash, a colleague of mine here in the state of Michigan, and an energetic young educator with a passion for virtual learning. The challenges that John brings to light are an interesting blend of both management and functional issues related to online learning, and are meant to serve more as a conversation starter rather than an in depth analysis of the challenges that virtualized learning presents. I was going to leave a comment, expanding upon further issues, or perhaps exploring a particular issue in depth, but I decided instead to write a response here, as I often have a tendency to ramble on about such matters related to education.
John presents three issues that he sees to online learning becoming the dominant form of education here in the United States (which for the record, is a prediction made not by Mr. Sowash, but by a big name in the educational world, and one that I think is completely and utterly full of bunk!). I’ll address two of John’s challenges to online learning, and for grins add one of my own that I often see neglected by those supporting a move to a fully online educational system.
From John’s post:
Most families feature two full-time working parents. School provides childcare as well as an education. Having students at home taking online classes would not work for most families. Potentially, a whole new industry of supervision could emerge for students who need a safe place to go during school hours.
To simply label school as a place where children receive supervised care, in addition to education, is a bit over-simplistic, and I fully believe that’s not what John intended as the take away from his statement. However, he is right in that many parents see school as free childcare first, and institutions of enculturation second; teachers are there to dole out lectures, supervise independent work time, and answer questions about the homework; anything else is “great”, but not expected. It’s the reason behind tax payers pushing back on bond initiatives recently in Michigan, legislators cutting education to the bone in many states looking to make drastic cuts in educational budgets, and why Khan Academy has been supported with such zealotry that even questioning its effectiveness is asking for a tongue lashing from parents.
The true challenge then is not to find some way to supervise students in full time virtual schools, but rather engaging their parents, and helping them to realize the influence they have in their children’s education. Many home-schooling parents do a very effective job in this arena, connecting with one another, setting up activities and learning opportunities that get students working together and connecting with their community (for example, my wife teaches a weekly art class to a group of home school students at our local art institution). The challenge is finding a way to make sure that the students learning online are still grounded to the physical world, making connections with the real world, and more importantly their community, and the people around them. To be educated globally is and will continue to be important in the future, but it must be anchored to strong concrete experiences and examples the learner will have in their daily lives. Simply providing supervision isn’t going to be enough.
Again, from John’s post:
There is shortage of experienced online teachers. Teacher education programs are simply not preparing students for online learning. I have spoken to many new teachers about their pre-service training and only one had any experience facilitating an online course. While most college graduates have had a least one experience as an online student, very few have had any experience as an online instructor. Pre-service training must be rapidly reformed in order to prepare students for the current needs and demands of the industry.
I agree that traditional teacher preparation programs are woefully inadequate in providing experiences with online learning for their undergrads. Student teachers should be required to spend more pre-internship and/or internship time both as both a learner in and a leader of online learning experience, just as many currently spend required hours for different courses in a classroom working on specific skills. However, the focus should remain the same as traditional internship experiences; reflecting upon the teaching and learning, identifying ineffective strategies (many of which have made the transition to online learning), and building up confidence in effective strategies. Pre-service teachers need the experience, so that they can be better prepared to teach effectively in either environment, as many of the same effective teaching strategies (jigsaws, writer’s workshops, peer-tutoring, project and challenge based learning, etc.) work well both online and offline.
Which leaves me with my closing thoughts. As a previous and currently enrolled student in online courses, I have to say that the biggest challenge for online learning, at least for me, is the physical disconnect that occurs when you’re classmates are hundreds of miles away, and your instructor may or may not even live in the same country as you. That’s not to say I think that a “flattened” approach to education is bad, but rather limiting. Without the close physical friendships and connections that occur in a traditional classroom, online learning is at a distinct disadvantage to traditional education, and always will be. Even students participating in Vicki Davis’ Flat Classroom Project understand this, as the coordinators of that learning effort strive to bring participants together through actual physical conferences whenever feasible (and affordable).
Learning is a social process, and while technology has allowed us to make great leaps forward in how we can connect socially online through streaming video and audio, collaborative cloud-based work environments, and asynchronous “status updates”, the world is still populated with people that need a physical connection to one another, and a way to identify with a community, both locally and globally. Business and political leader still meet “face to face”, successful online graduate programs have residencies that bring participants together, and the need to build strong social skills around others will never go away.
I can foresee a day in education in which blended learning is the norm, and students spend a part of their day collaborating with other learners hundreds of miles from one another, or receiving instruction from an expert in another country, but the biggest challenge of online learning is one that I don’t see it ever overcoming; the need for human beings to interact with each other without the barrier of an electronic screen between them.
featured image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/59939034@N02/5476290870