Challenges to Online Learning: A Response

EdReach....not the Emergency Room

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:

Parental supervision
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:

Teacher Preparation

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.

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  1. Learning online, where provides learners a sea of knowledge and diversity of ideas and concepts, is a big challenge for them. Via online learning opportunities, one can get chance to interact with people from other regions, with different backgrounds, with rich experiences in their respective fields, which enhances your knowledge base dramatically in very short term. But, remember, all these things require more concentration and commitment.

  2. Ben,

    I am a middle school teacher in Michigan. My school, but mostly the high school in our district, utilizes an online learning program that allows students to take nearly any class online instead of in the standard classroom. These students still attend a full day of school, but for one, or a few, hours of the day they are taking their online classes in a computer lab. The biggest issue I’ve seen with this method is the struggle many students have without teacher assistance and without multiple forms of content presentation. Many ESL and special education students struggle with online learning and students that require a kinesthetic approach to learning, get nothing.

    Do you have any thoughts on the extent to which online learning is beneficial, or becomes detrimental, for these types of students?

    1. My district is in a very similar situation, Curt. In fact, we’re one of the largest consumers of Michigan Virtual High School and MVU courses, so I have an idea of what it can be like to deal with such a large number of students taking online courses during the school day without traditional models of support.

      In an ideal world, it would be nice to have the teacher of record be a local teacher, either in the district or in the building. Face to face “study” or “question” time could be easily facilitated by conferencing with that teacher. You could also do it online as well, but it would depend on the online teacher making himself available via Skype or some other tool to chat and converse with the students in a one on one “conference” setting.

      I’m actually taking an online course right now in which the participants need to conference once a week with the instructor via Skype, and it’s made for a MUCH more meaningful and helpful experience for the students involved.

      As for ESL or other students with specific learning needs, online learning probably isn’t going to be the best route for them (given the current standard of online learning delivered by a commercial platform). Online learning is probably going to be most beneficial when the teacher has the freedom to create their own online learning environment, and bring in Skype, Google Docs, social media, and other various tools, instead of just using the rigid confines of an online LMS like Blackboard, MVU, or Moodle (although Moodle is more flexible).

      For the students that need physical contact, and various other forms of interaction (being able to see the person speaking to pick up on body language cues, etc.), I think online learning is going to be a struggle, although I’ve heard a lot of people have success using an online 3D world like Second Life, Reaction Grid (, and other virtual worlds to give that same sort of sense of interaction to students with Autism and other special needs.

      1. Thanks for responding. There are many aspects of online learning that I am not yet familiar with. I have never worked with Second Life or used Skype with my students. I am working towards incorporating more online resources like My Big Campus and Google Docs for my students. I think you’re right that many of these options may not be the best for ESL students. The biggest issue that I’ve run into at my school is that one person runs our computer lab, but that instructor is not the teacher of record. Students may be working in any subject area, which means that the instructor is not necessarily knowledgeable enough to help the students.

        From what you said, it sounds like for online learning to be most beneficial it must be implemented on a much larger scale. Thanks, again.

      2. I wouldn’t say that you have to deploy an online learning strategy on a large scale in order to be effective, especially not in the traditional sense of “kids enter computer lab, take class, and leave.” In fact, that would be disastrous for many reasons, the least of which morale on the teaching staff.

        However, having some sort of systemic online learning blended with traditional instruction might be a great way to go. Say for instance, digital portfolios that are connected to blogs and wikis so students have their own place to “show off” assignments, but are also connected via a social network. Edmodo and Schoology do this VERY well. It’s important to give learners a space for them to grow on their own, but ensure that the scaffolding that exists around them includes teachers and facilitators that are present in a face to face manner.

      3. I guess I was considering the implementation of a completely online course only. For everyday classroom use of technology I like your ideas. I haven’t seen or used Edmodo or Schoology. The demos look pretty cool. My school uses My Big Campus. It seems to be similar to Schoology, but with less features. They are growing and I hope to incorporate it into my classroom a bit more next year. Thanks, once again, for your feedback. I appreciate your time. Happy 4th of July!

  3. I found out online learning needs someone who is well organised and has great focus to accomplish what you intended to do in the first place, or you could end up with a collection of online courses that have not been used. Personally I prefer learning in a class but using software to aid my lessons.

  4. Ben, another aspect of facilitating online learning and education is the matter of accessibility and inclusion. Millions of children and students with disabilities require specialized or customized solutions to learning owing to a range of impairments, including learning, reading, cognitive, visual, hearing and motor. How do educators, app makers, and technology facilitators integrate accessible course modules for chemistry experiments or biology classes or mathematical symbols? While the online world promises a plethora of aids and interactivity, in the larger race towards gearing up for online learning, I hope we don’t leave behind students and children who could do with some extra engagement. Here are three articles that would interest you and your readers
    1) From Classrooms to e-Accessible Classes: Making e-Learning Inclusive
    2) Electronic Text and the Law: Making Math Accessible for Students with Disabilities
    3) Accessibility of Science Instructional Material and Courses for Students with Disabilities

    1. That’s a really great point you make about accessibility for those with disabilities, or simply for getting connected in areas where there may be limited connectivity. While there’s certainly some accommodations that can be made for visual or auditory impairments, the cognitive and other disabilities provide just as much a challenge with online learning as they would in a traditional face to face classroom.

      I’m much more a fan of a blended learning environment, where students and teachers have opportunities to work in both physical and digital spaces together, allowing for a much more complete learning experience. As for virtualizing science investigations and other manipulatives, I would argue there are some things which we should strive to keep in the physical learning space whenever possible. Thanks for the links to the great articles, looks like good reading.

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