Facebook Twitter

On-line learning helps education “nonconsumers”

An article by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn at Edutopia paints a picture of computers providing modified activities to fit students’ different learning styles — one student learns a sentence in Mandarin by playing a game, another through a memorization activity:

Both students are learning to put together sentences that they’ll use in a conversation together in front of the rest of the class — some of whom are using the same learning tools as these two, but many of whom are learning Mandarin in other ways tailored to the way they learn.

But decades of computers-in-schools efforts haven’t led to this kind of transformation of teaching and learning, the article points out. Right now, the courses offered by the Florida Virtual School, a leader in on-line learning, don’t seem all that different from traditional courses — while assignments offer some choice to students, and lessons link to websites with additional content, I saw no evidence of the kind of learning-style-oriented instruction described in the Edutopia article. Another purveyor of on-line courses, Apex Learning, claims to differentiate instruction through multimedia, but the site doesn’t provide demonstration or description of how this works.

The solution is to implement innovative technology models “where the alternative is no class at all,” let them improve over time, and slowly build more widespread demand, say Christensen and Horn.

Where do they envision on-line learning filling gaps in educational offerings? Among “nonconsumers,” students in small schools that don’t offer advanced classes, who need to retake a course, or who seek a flexible schedule, they write. This sounds a lot like the Department of Education’s plan to allow high school students to complete graduation requirements on-line, pending a waiver of the state’s seat-time requirement. And the NYCiSchool, which opened this fall, promises college courses and 37 AP choices, thanks to on-line offerings, and hopes flexible scheduling will allow students to participate in internships and field experiences.

I see the promise for advanced students who can move through material faster on their own than in a traditional classroom, for students who want to graduate quickly and enter the workforce, and for some overage students, but I wonder how students who have struggled with academics would fare in on-line courses. Is there enough contact with a teacher to ensure that students stick with the class, manage their time, and complete assignments?

To address this problem, a Florida Virtual School demo shows that students must complete a timeline of when they will complete assignments for a course, depending on whether they wish to move at a regular or accelerated pace; this timeline is then treated as a contract between student and teacher. The learning management system also includes tools for on-line discussion.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.