I’ve been talking about online learning for over twenty years, ever since I realized the power of online discussion forums in which anyone could participate from anywhere in the world. I did research studies in the 1990s on the effect of anonymity in the quality of online discussions among middle school students. I have been a curator of online professional learning networks longer than we’ve known what those networks are. But the online learning that the politicians and school leaders are talking about now is very different. Whether it’s blended learning or online learning or flipped classrooms, the idea is generally the same: use technology to disseminate academic content to students.
That’s an efficient way to use technology to make sure students are mastering the content standards. It makes teaching a science. Start with the list of things we want our students to know. Assess the students to see what they already know. Focus instruction on the gap between what they know and what we want them to know. Re-assess and repeat. Most of this can be automated. It can serve each student at his or her own individual level. It can customize instruction like never before. And it can do it very inexpensively, when compared to labor-intensive interventions.
Khan Academy does this well. So does Knewton and Brainscape and Cerego and countless other adaptive applications. And so do the so-called xMOOCs like Coursera and Udacity, which seem to be getting an enormous amount of press lately, despite their complete redefinition of what a MOOC actually is. All of these programs / companies / approaches make it easier to deliver content to students, and to ensure that the students have adequately mastered that content.
Indeed, this approach has made the online charter schools possible. My daughter is finishing her second year in an online charter. It’s almost entirely automated, with students completing reading and LMS assignments, taking assessments, and then continuing on with more content. By the end of the year, a student who has completed the prescribed coursework is sufficiently prepared to pass the achievement tests, and we can successfully conclude that sufficient learning has taken place.
Unfortunately, that’s not all we need to be doing in our schools. Our students already have all of the answers to all of the questions on the test. It’s in that little black slab of plastic and glass they carry around with them. In an era of information abundance, the simple recall of information does not make one educated. It’s much more imporant that our students can take that information, combine it with other resources, improve on it, and use it to solve real problems. It’s critical that our students are able to work together with people from different cultures, collaborating both in online and face-to-face environments. The only hope for the long-term success for our country is for our students to innovation and creatively apply the knowledge they have to develop new technologies and new solutions to problems we haven’t yet identified.
Technology can certainly help with that. We use collaborative tools and communication tools to connect with and work together with people from all over the world. We all have the means to distribute our work globally in a variety of media. We have access to enormous volumes of data that can be analyzed in new ways. We can embrace the true vision of MOOCs, now referred to as cMOOCs, which emphasize participation in a community of learners rather than interaction with content.
Maybe there’s room for both approaches. If we automate the distribution of knowledge, we can increase the efficiency with which we prepare students to take the tests. Then, we’ll have more time to focus on the more important — but harder to measure — needs of next generation learners.
Photo credit: Queensu on Flickr.