There was an interesting article in the NY Times today about the proliferation of online courses in public schools entitled More Pupils are Learning Online, Fueling the Debate about Quality. Advocates say that it’s a great way to give more students access to more courses and prepares students for online courses they’ll need to take in college and beyond. Detractors say they’re just being used to teach more kids for less money, get rid of those meddlesome teachers and are ripe for fraud and plagiarism.
Having been an online teacher and instructional designer for many years, you’d think I’d be jumping up and down about how great it was that online classes had finally made it to the bigs. Instead, I’m standing, maybe swaying a bit, but that’s about all. On the one hand, I think that every kid should be required to take at least one online course before they escape from high school as it is definitely a format they will see again whether they become a mechanic or robber baron or a rock star (yeah, even rock stars learn online as the Berklee College of Music so aptly demonstrates). Online courses also provide access for certain courses that may not be available in every school and are ideal supplements for home-schooled kids, star athletes, and other youngin’s whose schedules don’t abide by the conventional school daze.
You know there’s a “but” coming and here it is. Most online courses are only partially-baked. We’re still in version 1.0 of online learning (okay, maybe 1.732), but the technology to support truly interactive, engaging, motivating, exciting, relevant, contextual and personalized learning at the k-12 level isn’t all there yet. This isn’t to say there aren’t some great online courses or that every classroom provides a rich learning environment or that adult learners are benefitting immensely from the availability of online programs, but it’s very easy for younger students who aren’t self-motivated and hungry to slack off in an online course and the temptation to “borrow” material from other sources and submit it as one’s own is very high (can you say Wikipedia?)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a huge believer in online learning, I just think the reason it’s getting a lot of play right now is more as a budgetary cure than as a great pedagogical panacea to the state of public education. And I fear it will only get worse before it gets better as kids are forced to take more and more “core” courses online (like in Florida where they have a class size limit, but not enough dough to pay teachers, so they stick the kid in front of an online Algebra II course and say “learn”). The technology is improving everyday with adaptive learning platforms such as Knewton and Wireless Generation, but it ain’t quite there yet. Unfortunately, the kids are.