One of the most intelligent people in philanthropy is Terry Ryan at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Dayton, Ohio . Terry has been a leader in our professional meetings challenging the State to address the proliferation of online learning and its impact, not only in Ohio but across the country. I find myself agreeing with Terry on many of these issues and it my hope that more people in philanthropy will engage in this important question with us.
An increasing number of education and business experts are documenting that the second-wave of computer technology along with adaptations of social software will transform the way “schooling” and “teaching” take place. Online learning, e-learning, e-schools, virtual schools, and cyber-schools are all terms that refer to the phenomena of using online approaches to educate children. Over the past decade, there has been an explosive growth in the use of online learning opportunities across the country and across Ohio. States have seen the growth of stand-alone online schools as well as online programs connected to traditional schools and school support groups like state departments of education and county educational service centers.
As of the fall of 2008:
• 17 states offer significant supplemental and full-time online options for students;
• 23 states offer significant supplemental opportunities, but not full- time opportunities;
• 4 states offer significant full-time opportunities, but not supplemental;
• 34 states offer state-led programs or initiatives to work with school districts to supplement course offerings; and
• 21 states have full-time online schools (often charters, but also district-operated schools that operate statewide).ii
The Florida Virtual School, for example, is an online school built and operated by the Florida Department of Education that has seen course enrollment grow dramatically, from 77 at its 1997 inception to 113,900 course enrollments in the 2007-08 school year. In Ohio, more than 24,000 students attend online schools, based online rather than in school buildings. Thousands of others take some of their courses online while at their traditional schools.
Indeed, this is the fastest growing segment of the new schools’ sector in Ohio and many other states. Ohio now has it’s own Ohio Virtual Academy for K-12 and the State is uncertain how to respond. It is clear that the power of information and communication technologies and online learning to improve and customize learning for children is accelerating. If this sector is encouraged in coming years, it will lead to powerful educational innovations, including exciting partnerships between classroom-based instruction and online learning, and increased 24/7 learning opportunities for Ohio’s children. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that “50 percent of all courses in grades 9-12 will be taken online by 2019.”
Online learning opportunities are expanding rapidly because they offer much promise. Full-time online learning opportunities provide an outlet to traditional classroom-based instruction for parents seeking greater customization of learning opportunities for their children. It can also facilitate a parent’s involvement in their child’s education. These programs, done well, offer new learning opportunities for children and a place for parents to turn if they and/or their children are unhappy with the education provided by their traditional school. These programs can also be important supplements for what traditional schools do and provide significant support to classroom teachers. An additional promise of online learning is its potential to help students access rigorous courses and highly qualified teachers despite their location (e.g., rural areas, hard to staff urban schools, or home-bound children). Internet-based learning models remove geographic, physical, and time barriers to learning allowing successful models to expand rapidly.
My colleagues at the KnowledgeWorks Foundation have put together and very impressive video that challenges every educational administrator and teacher serving in the today’s educational sector. The question to any educational professional viewing this presentation is to gauge your immediate reaction to the video – Does it scare you? or Does it present exciting challenges to you in how you and those who follow you will continue in the “profession” of teaching?
As with any disruptive organizational change efforts to align online learning to the traditional system are not without controversy. For example, there is wide variation in the quality of K-12 full-time online learning schools, and some are poorly designed and deliver un-challenging lessons. Others offer little personal attention to children who need it. Look at the successful marketing frenzy of RosettaStone™ and its move to online language learning. Some cash-strapped districts such as those in New Jersey and Virginia, are eliminating their high school language departments and replace it with this product in the naive attempt to get on-boad the technology boom.
Despite the growth in online learning there is little research available that measures program quality and rigorous research has yet to be released that informs us what types, and under what conditions, online programs work best. Promising practices have been identified, but more is unknown than is known.
At the same time, legislators have introduced a bill to create a new “distance learning pilot program.” It would offer AP courses via teleconferencing equipment to every Ohio high school, thereby providing access to classes that students wouldn’t otherwise have because those classes are too costly for their schools to provide. Given the state’s potential for terminating a large chunk of Ohio’s extant online learning community while at the same time promoting online learning via other measures, the time is at hand to identify promising initiatives that can be supported, replicated, and scaled up.
Another video, produced by teachers in the system presents us with additional challenges related to the urgency online learning presents to anyone in the educational sector.
One of the teachers presents the following challenge
One of the things I think we have to ask ourselves as school leaders is ‘What’s our moral imperative to prepare kids for a digital, global age?’ Right now we’re sort of ignoring that requirement. . . . I think you would take a look at much of what we do in our current schooling system and just toss it and essentially start over. So the question for school leaders and for policymakers is ‘How brave are you and how visionary are you going to be?’ And you don’t even have to be that visionary. Just look around right now and see the trends that already are happening and just project those out and see that it’s going to be a very different world.
This is the urgency I would like to see propelling the Educational Innovation Zones I spoke about in the previous post. The problem with this video is that it talks about innovation in learning but it continues to take place within a public school “system” as we know it. My read indicates that they are talking about new ways of learning but pouring new wine into the proverbial old skins. The video still pans on aging schools and kids doing their computer work in some type of lab but in reality, even the spaces in which learning take place, will change the way we construct schools. I refer to the example of the architectural innovation in the Seattle Public Library.
Philanthropy has a role to push this challenge to the established educational bureaucracy in this country to help change the system. Specifically, Philanthropy can provide a unique role in working with teachers to help them reshape their role in this new and changing environment. There are many examples of that and I will offer them up in the next post.