Monday, January 23, 2012

Online Learning: Which Way to Go?

Well, it's been a big week.   Apple debuted it's new i-texts, and the Anita District is one of the schools in the state exploring online learning for its next year of offerings.  Several others are contemplating the idea.

And yet...I hesitate about these types of corporate blended learning.   In all honesty, I don't see that this new form of education is much different than the 'old' form of education we've had for years, and which has met the needs of top-level, highly-motivated** kids for a fee.   (**emphasis mine)

Traditional Online Options 

Quite honestly, if all your student does is read online, do simulations online, and take a traditional test online, I'm not certain that the criteria of rigor and relevance is being met in their education; more likely, you are letting the book or the canned curriculum dictate what is best for your students.  This seems to me to be what is happening with the big online programs being pursued by Iowa School Districts.  It's an easy fix, especially since about 80% of the general fund goes to teaching salaries.  What if you could replace a teacher with a digital curriculum that meets 24/7?  Should your district do it?  I'd suggest doing some homework before saying yes to one of these schools, especially when you look beyond their intro videos to the meat of the content. Shoehorning kids into a class only for the purpose of checking the curriculum off a list of to-be-completed requirements is not the best reason to choose one of these classes.

Version 2.0 of these classes, replacing the correspondence courses of old, often has a flash applet or two that 'talks at your kid' and a chat feature at a specified (usually evening) time.  If you are fortunate enough to have a fast internet connection, your kids may benefit from these sessions, but the rest of this coursework is content, not relationship.   I can get content from a myriad of sources, but creating understandings, forging trust and confidence in a child--that is a much tougher task, and the real reason we have teachers..  What will you do for the struggling learner?  The one who has difficulty reading or articulating the content?  The one whose parents are going through a tough time? What about those haptic learners who need models to hang their hats on?  What about the kids who need RTI intervention?  And if....a million other questions your district needs to answer.  Our biggest nod to reform in the online environments will be requiring the BOEE to go through and make sure teachers teaching them have an Iowa License.

Does this mean we will have Iowa teachers leading these classes in a manner that meets the needs and interests and Iowa kids?  Probably not.  I can get a license in most states already because of my current teaching experience, but that doesn't mean I will understand  kids who are so far away.  Imagine if I were to teach the students in a Maine class about a water ecosystem, focusing on my experience (the freshwater Mississippi) instead of theirs (a saltwater estuary).   The misconceptions that would arise would be immense.   Additionally, classes being taught this way don't always have teachers available on the least in the experiences my family has had.

At this point, it's fair to ask why I have an opinion on these type of experiences.  Simply put, my own kids have taken several online classes (due to extended illness and anxiety). And as a teacher of 20+ years, I have seen many students work with everything from the Kentucky Migrant Worker Project to APOnline options to correspondence courses to A+ credit recovery.  The courses have ranged from acceptable to awful, and some of them were proctored by a person you could email for questions.  Very few of them had a quick turnaround time for students with questions; some required as long as 3 days.

Here are three local, home-grown options that are worth a closer look.

#ILO, or Iowa Learning Online

Again, two of my older children and some of my students have had experience with the Iowa Learning Online curriculum.   The instructors who are involved in this project have been recognized nationally as Milken educators, and have given back to the local community, regional AEAs and state initiatives to build consensus.   Why do I think it's superior to the online curricula others are looking at?  Here are a sampling of the reasons.

  • The work that they have created in courses such as biology and chemistry is project-based in nature.
  • It's relevant and rigorous, based on the Iowa Core, and hits on topics ranging from the Manson Meteorite to the chemistry of hard and soft water.  
  • Students are given partners and must complete their work, their presentations, and their collaborations using online tools and gradual release of responsibility, rather than passive set-and-get modules.
  • Chats are again held to answer questions, but simulations are augmented with regional labs, ICN or Adobe Connect discussions, and meta-cognition that is focused on student questions, rather than simplistic end-of-the-chapter work.  
  • In science, with which I am most familar, effective science and engineering practices (to use the language of the National Science Framework) are integrated as inquiry labs, done as homework, and processed through the efforts of experienced teachers.
  • Teachers in ILO have extensive training in online facilitation. I've seen them adjust timelines, reschedule meetings for sick kids, self-pace kids.   This caring and flexibility is critical for online education.
In short, ILO has done quality online and distance-learning for more than 8 years with Iowa teachers using best-practices and local collaboration.  This is part of the 'online learning' portion of the governor's proposed blueprint 2.0 and a better learning environment because it's been proven through time.

#iacopi, or Iowa Communities of Practice

Iowa Communities of Practice, or #iacopi, has taken a decidedly local approach.  Here, it's not about removing teachers from the kids; it is, however, about creating learning environments by allowing teams of teachers to collaborate.  Teachers meet and work to develop a quality curriculum that allows differentiation and collaborations between classes in different schools.  This is very valuable because

  • The work that they have created in courses includes the areas of English, social studies, math, and science.
  • The teachers use each other and the Iowa Core content standards as a platform to suggest ideas of covering a topic.
  • It's relevant and rigorous, and allows students to create, synthesize and collaborate with others in the room and those who are in similar classes across the state.
  • Students are doing minds-on work.  Because the instruction can be simultaneously online and in-class, multiple modes of learning are happening simultaneously.   Activity, technology integration, and processing are happening in groups.
  • Assessment can be compared from school-to-school, giving new possibilities for the end-of-course options.
  • While the content concepts are the same, different schools use different focal points for their projects, and share among peers.
  • Teachers can employ a gradual release of responsibility as differentiation and collaboration increase.
  • Teachers are given training in online facilitation. 
Iowa Communities of Practice is truly revolutionary in the sense that it is developing a collaborative culture in Iowa.   It's helping to stitch 140 individuals in buildings across the state into a "system of schools," rather than a silo approach.  It's reSOURCE Iowa content is evolving, and communication wikis, twitter and regional meetings change the ideas of rigor and professional development for participants..  One of the outside observers at the last meeting remarked,  "The true strength of what you are doing is in the teacher collaboration.  There's not much like this out there."  

Oelwein Chemistry Project...right in the middle

This year I have been involved in the Oelwein project, which puts this concept of local blended learning right in the middle of ILO and #iacopi.  Let me take a second to recap.

In May, I received a tweet from an online colleague commenting that Oelwein had not been able to find a part-time chemistry teacher.  #ILO was not an option, because the classes were full, and #ILO was not designed to handle an entire district of kids.  Rather, it was focused at helping schools offer curriculum for a small number of students in each district (for example, if there are 2 or 3 kids in a school who need physics) Those who have tried to locate a teacher in a shortage area know that this difficulty arises more commonly than we would like to think.  

I already teach full-time during the day, but I was ready for an experiment.  After a series of conversations with the principal,  superintendent, and AEA consultant, and the Oelwein School Board, I presented a vision that would combine elements of both types of blended learning.  My thought:  the curriculum would be online, but I would be available on text, chat, phone, and the kids would meet weekly for a modeling/lab session, with a followup on missing homework.   I would be employed by the district as a part-time teacher in a different capacity than a normal 8-4 classroom. I've been compiling my successes and challenges from this experiment, but that's another post.  What I will tell you is that this model is:

  • flexible for kids, as they have a choice of meeting times and contacting me.  Their school day schedule has a built-in 9th hour study hall they can use for online access at school, and I have met with kids to meet their needs using any number of communication techniques.
  • uses online learning as a tool, and is aligned to the Iowa Core, the Oelwein Districts, and also adapts the ILO chemistry outline. 
  • It's project-based, with modeling and reflection built into the course.   
  • It's flexible for me as an instructor, and has allowed me to collaborate with a master teacher.  I find myself day-dreaming about the possible applications here.  I spend a chunk of time in Oelwein each week (including several Sunday night McDonald's sessions),  but more importantly, I'm able to connect with the students wherever they are at in terms of content. There are tons of possibilities, but perhaps the biggest change of all is that my perception of teaching is no longer time-based and industrial.   It's instead, competency-based, based on what the students still need to be successful.

I hope you have a million questions about online learning, but before you jump to a total K12 solution, get them answered! And I hope the Legislature looks at the benefits of local vs. corporate solutions.  Try following #iacopi on twitter, or sending a few of your district teachers to the next #iacopi meeting on June 19 (contact @nmovall on twitter or email), or visit with some students who have taken ILO classes already or contact me (@marciarpowell on twitter or email)

Isn't this model what we envisioned when we first debuted the ICN?  The idea that we could have a teacher of German in one locale, reaching out to students across a local region?  And another teacher who could be responsible for another subject area, building up possibilities for students in remote locations?  The future is here.  But it's our decision as local districts.  Will we build on Iowa relationships, strengths and teaching or outsource our kids to the cheapest bidder?


  1. I'm an advocate of online learning, but I agree that we will have to work hard to ensure high-quality, responsive learning environments for students. I'll also note that the same skepticism we're applying to online learning spaces should be applied to face-to-face learning spaces. F2F is not inherently better and often is just as bad or worse...

  2. Scott, I absolutely agree with you. However, I would posit that if we just want kids to learn on their own, we can hand them a book, a computer, and a CD or flash drive w/ mp3 and be just as successful as some of these online courses will be at developing relationships.

    Teachers in the 21st century need to realize that they are a value-added component precisely because of their insight and their ability to present in different ways, not because of their content knowledge. The online programs, as we see here, can present the content as well as Khan Academy or other options. What they cannot due without a professional that is well-versed in pedagogy is adapt to the needs of the students.

    The gift of programs that are local (#iacopi etal) is that they involve collaboration among students, but just as importantly, among teachers. Best practices have a place in this type of learning. The needs of all students have a place in this type of learning, whether it is mostly face-to-face or mostly online. I just don't see that care and concern in the corporate world.

  3. You and I are agreement re: the value-added of teachers. BUT we may be in disagreement that what you describe - teacher-student interaction, teacher-teacher collaboration, etc. - can't also occur online?

    Also, some students/families want more of a self-paced, individual learning experience. Should we tell them no? (maybe we should, I don't know)

  4. Scott, I agree that teacher-student interaction and teacher-teacher collaboration can occur online. But I think for that to happen you need training in facilitation and you of course need tech skills. How much training do these institutions provide? I think that should be a question that is looked at carefully by school boards. In short, it's my thought that my journey to becoming an online teacher took years. We need teachers with good pedagogy, the ability to activate prior knowledge, the ability to ask probing questions that uncover misconceptions. And we need to make certain the opportunities for showing understanding use more than rote memorization. These are some of the skills focused upon in the OLLIE program at Keystone AEA, or the e-educator program at UWStout in Wisconsin or Drake's certificate for online pedagogy or even the training offered by #iacopi. Can these online institutes share their teacher preparation?

    As to your other question, I have no doubt that some families want more of a self-paced, individual learning experience. The home-school movement has popularized some of these, and places like Kirkwood have had high school credit options for more than 15 years in various forms. These opportunities currently run about $500/course. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, and some of them are scary to me, because they are couched in religious overtones. I believe that our society has always let the parent be the primary educator. That said, I don't want substandard offerings being presented to Iowa kids. We're talking about a vetting of the curriculum (does it meet Iowa Core standards) as a reason to get the BOEE involved. Are we also looking at a vetting of the pedagogy involved; if not, shouldn't we be?

  5. This is a great conversation!

    As to your first point, of course some institutions do a better job than others of preparing online teachers for their courses. Florida Virtual School, for example, does a great job, as do the places you mention here. For others, it's hard to tell. Maybe a bigger question is how would an administrator who approves/disapproves a course be able to tell since it will vary by course and instructor? Even blanket training assurances/experiences may not be enough...

    As to your second point, above some very bare minimum, we've never vetted pedagogical quality for either online or F2F or homeschooling. Not sure the policymakers want to take that on, even if it's a good idea educationally.

  6. Scott, the point of Blueprint 2.0 is to transform education, not to continue the status quo. Shouldn't we ask about the quality of the teaching when we are starting something new? I would be very interested in seeing the prep program for FLVS teaching, as I find very vague assurances of 'multi-day training' from

    I do appreciate that FLVS prefers Florida instructors, so I think Iowa should follow suit and create it's own. FLVS will sell its curriculum and we can build our own; in fact, that was the starting point for #iacopi, even though it was radically restructured. I do think that online content is the future. I am just trying to make certain that these programs benefit Iowa and Iowa students in the long-run. It seems that local options build all Iowa schools and encourage relationships among students and their teachers.

    And perhaps its the spirit of synergy I saw unfolding at #iacopi when 140 teachers across the state came and worked to build their own. What's stopping us? Perhaps its the traditional nature of the blueprint itself, or perhaps it is a belief in the private sector. It's a tough choice, but what we decide will have long-term repercussions.

  7. I'm in full concurrence here. I just think we have to hold our F2F teaching up to the same high standards as you wish to hold online. And I think many F2F classes fall short...