Online Education: A Word of Caution

Online education is becoming a legitimate and viable option for education systems around the country. Both colleges and secondary schools are offering classes to students. In fact many states and schools are requiring students to take some method of mode of online learning. New York made major changes around seat time and face-to-face contact between student and teacher. The state's intentions are good. They want to move away the focus from seat time, and they want to offer courses that might be hard to offer in certain areas of the state to all students. With all these innovative systemic changes, one might think we are completely on the right track. I offer a word of caution.

Online education is in danger of replicating a system that isn't working. Yes, I wrote it. With all the potential for innovation that online education has to offer, we have fallen into the pitfall of replication. The keyword is "danger." There is much that online education can do to innovate the education system, and much that has already been done as a result. Yet most of the actual courses and pedagogical structures that are in place are simply replicating the traditional style of education.

What's the biggest positive effect of online education? It is causing schools to reevaluate and seek to answer the question: "Why do students need and want to go our schools?" In addition, online education is focusing on the learning, not time, a movement toward competency-based pathways, especially those championed by iNACOL, and moving conversations about student achievement in the right direction. Teaching and learning can be tailored to the specific student. Students complete work at their own pace and seek feedback and instruction as they need, rather than when the teacher decides. Students are immersed in a variety of technology tools and media, allowing for different ways to learn content.

With all these positive implications and results, what is missing? The pedagogical structures for most online courses is traditional and does not meet the needs of all students and the variety of learning styles that they come with. Although there might be a variety of media types, such as videos or music or reading, the lesson design is still in the "sage on the stage" mode, where the course knows the content and pushes it out on students. Although students might be asked to show what they know in different modalities, from a collage to a podcast, they mimic low-level performances of regurgitating knowledge for the teacher to assess. Grading practices are often poor, with arbitrary point values being given, rather than focus on the standards. Well-designed rubrics are not present for students, and if they are, the students are left to their devices to understand it. Revision mimics a typical essay from school, where only one draft is required. Although there might be discussion boards or other social media to collaborate, collaborative assessments and work are not present to create a true need to collaborate. Discussions boards, for example, are treated as a summative assessment, points in the grade book. Shouldn't it instead be used for the purpose is was created? It should be a place where collaboration and wrestling with rigorous questions can occur, not a punitive measure to "cattle prod" students into doing work. Courses are often not culturally responsive, nor are teachers trained in culturally responsive teaching and what it looks like online.

The good news is that there are some innovators out that are truly looking at online education to implement proven pedagogical practices that seek to engage students. Some schools are using project-based learning as their focus to create a need to know the online content and demand that students innovate and collaborate together, whether fully online or in a hybrid model. Game-based learning courses are starting to be developed where students engage in missions to learn important content and skills where timely feedback and incentives are the norm. Some online courses are completely standards-based, where students are graded on learning targets, not simply time and work.

What should you take away from this? We can do better. Parents should be asking tough questions around these concerns when they consider signing up their student for online classes. Course providers should be trying new and innovative practices and consider culture in the course design. Teachers need to trained in these new pedagogical methods, so that professional resources includes not only strategies and tools for teaching online, but a push toward an innovative art of teaching. All stakeholders should be actively involved in collaborating on courses with the content developers and push back when they see "the same old thing." Our students deserve the best possible education, not simply a replication of a system that has not served all our students.