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In Our Online Learning Experience, More Ups Than Downs

The comments left on GothamSchools’ recent coverage of the Innovation Zone raised questions about the value of online learning similar to those we hear from our students and their families. As co-principals of the iSchool, a two-year-old school built around using online courses to individualize student learning, we thought it might be worthwhile to share the reasons we use online learning and how it works in our school.

Online learning means many different things at different schools. At the iSchool, we use the term to refer to courses where the content is delivered online only, and the teacher and student are not online at the same time. Each of our online courses is facilitated by an iSchool teacher, licensed in that content area, who designs the course, tracks student progress, and meets with students individually and in small groups when necessary. Our students spend about seven hours a week learning online at their own pace. Because of state regulations about awarding credit, these hours take place during the school day.

What does this look like inside our classrooms? Picture a traditional classroom with 34 students sitting in rows. Each student has a computer out on his/her desk and a notebook for taking notes. Each student is doing something different — some are watching a video of a teacher lecturing about the First Constitutional Convention (which students are pausing each time they take notes), some students are working on math problems, some are reading literature texts, and some are labeling the parts of a cell on a digital image.

We chose to incorporate online learning in our model for several important reasons:

  1. Learning online is — and will continue to be — a reality for the world in which our students are growing up. Our students will be required to learn online during their college and graduate school experiences, as well as throughout their careers. If we are to prepare them to be successful in their future endeavors, we must prepare them to be successful online learners.
  2. Learning to make sense of online texts and resources is a critical skill for our students’ academic success as well as their ability to be literate citizens of the 21st-century workplace and global community. Reading and analyzing online material requires development of the same skills that will facilitate their success with more traditional paper-and-pencil academic tasks and standardized tests.
  3. Online learning supports one important tenet of iSchool’s mission: to individualize our students’ high school experiences. Online learning enables students to progress through coursework at their own pace, to take courses when they are ready, and to more easily and readily have their learning presented in ways suited to their style and needs, through the use of audio and visual features.
  4. Finally, online courses broaden the curricular options available for our students. As a small school, we are limited both in funds and personnel. By offering our students the opportunity to take coursework online, we can offer Advanced Placement and college-level courses in any area to our students. This means that our students can pursue in greater depths those subjects of interest to them. It also means that our students will enter college ahead in credits and graduation requirements, increasing the likelihood that they will be successful in and complete college in four years.

While the argument for incorporating online instruction into students’ high school experience is compelling and strong, online learning isn’t easy for the teacher or student. Our students often tell us it would be so much easier if someone would just lecture at them and tell them what to memorize. Indeed, it would be easier, but we don’t embrace online learning at the iSchool to make learning easier. Of course, online learning does not in and of itself make classes rigorous, but used correctly, online learning enables each student to work on the content on which he needs to work — providing a level of individualization that is just not possible in a classroom with even the most gifted or experienced teacher.

At the iSchool we spend a great deal of time determining what kind of content is appropriate to put online, and what learning can best occur when directly facilitated by a teacher. What we’ve learned is that students do not need teachers to help them memorize low level content (e.g. that 2×2=4), but teachers are necessary to help students understand the reasons for (e.g. why 2×2=4) or the application (e.g. what we can do with this understanding) of this low-level content. Our students don’t spend less time in classrooms with teachers because of their online coursework; instead, time in classrooms focuses on developing students’ higher-order thinking skills (synthesis and application), rather than on drilling on content. We know that a computer will (likely) never be able to pass on the kinds of discussions, interaction, and skill development that can occur in the presence of a great teacher, but why waste our great teachers and valuable time on memorization and test prep?

As with any new instructional approach, we all have much to learn as we begin to implement it. Many of the concerns raised by GothamSchools’ readers are real and reflect the type of challenges teachers deal with every day, although they are not dissimilar to those faced by teachers in traditional classrooms. In fact, while students easily grasp the reasons and benefits of online learning, they experience much more difficulty adapting to the role of online learner. Online learning requires significantly more independence, self-discipline, and time management than has likely been required of students in their previous education and many of them struggle with this at first. During the past year, we have discovered several common factors that cause an iSchool student to struggle in their online classes:

  • Students look at the timeline presented in the course, but do not abide by it, thinking there is no “class” to attend.
  • Students think that they are invisible to the teacher and do not have to participate according to the guidelines.
  • Students don’t use the available tools to track their progress and access help when required.
  • Students forget that a real person is evaluating them, and may be tempted to turn in lower-quality work, use others’ work, or skip assignments altogether, thinking that nothing is “due.”
  • Students forget that online classes also have homework and don’t spend the time required.

After noticing the pattern of these common struggles, we put in place several structures to support students as they develop their online learning skills:

  • Each online course has built-in hints and tips to provide immediate assistance when a student is “stuck.”
  • Each online period has a proctor, who can assist students with technical issues, or provide general course help.
  • Online course teachers are available during office hours for students who wish to “drop in”; teachers also regularly mandate students to attend special online support sessions during office hours.
  • Students participated in tutorials at the beginning of the year with hints and strategies for online success; ninth-grade students spent additional time in class discussing online learning and strategies for success.
  • Students reviewed expectations for online coursework in Advisory, and were asked to sign an online learning contract.

While we have figured a few things out, we still have much to learn about how to be more effective online instructors and learners. For the iSchool, the benefit of the new iZone is that we will now have a community of schools who are thinking of the inherent challenges (which are far outweighed by the benefits of online learning) and working together to come up with solutions. We will also be working together to develop the best online curricula that will provide a broader range of courses and a more personalized high school experience for New York City students. Having teachers from different schools work together on curricula and pilot them with students in a variety of contexts will allow us to more efficiently design curricula that are effective across the broad range of the city’s student populations. Working together, with systemic support for the development of more innovative learning experiences, will enable all of us to do a better job of preparing our students for college and the future.

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.