Feb 282011

Online Education: Online is Not a Four Letter Word, It’s an Opportunity for Innovation

Online Education: 25 02 2011 , Lisa Dawley, PhD.

Online Education:  **Disclaimer:  This is not an endorsement, critique, or debate over Tom Luna’s Students Come First legislation.  Rather, my goal as a teacher and researcher directly involved in K-12 online education is to share my personal reaction to the legislation and resulting community outcry.

Online Education: Over the last several weeks, Idaho has experienced a tumultuous journey in its efforts to reinvent the K-12 public educational system.  As of last evening, Idaho State Superintendent Tom Luna had two bills pass the Senate and move on to the House.  I anticipate the third will soon follow.

Mr. Luna’s plan is built on the Digital Learning Now! campaign, launched by Governor Bush in Florida.  In reviewing the campaign, I support the overall intentions and rationale behind the platform (though not all components of Mr. Luna’s plan).  It’s quite unfortunate, however, that the implementation of campaign principles in Idaho legislation was coupled with simultaneous massive teacher layoffs, and thus, much of the public framed online education (a computer) as a replacement for a teacher.

Our educational system is in a crisis, it has to change in dramatic ways, and as a society, we all have to wake up.  I think in terms larger than reform, the entire system needs innovation by people who are willing to take risks and do things outside the normal way of doing business.  When I take this stance with academics, I’m often pushed on what empirical evidence I have that shows online education “works” to justify such a change.  This is an interesting question for at least three reasons:

1.  Online education is many different things, what exact type of online education are we discussing?  Highly interactive and blended learning that involves rich media and mobile learning options, both synchronous and asynchronous communication with kids assuming roles as independent producers and creators of their own knowledge; televised lecture where students sit passively and take notes while the teacher is the main individual allowed to talk and make meaning; or an online course that is fully text-based with lots of pdf files that are downloaded, read, and then the student is quizzed? The spectrum of online learning options is huge, and there is a lot we do know about these different options and their outcomes for learners.  It’s unfortunate that we get into black and white discussions about “online education” working or not working.  A more informed stance would be to inquire and understand what learning modalities and tools are appropriate and available for a given context and the educational needs within that context.

2.  There is a research base, which you can read more about here and here, however, many skeptics like to question the validity and reliability of the research, both from a scientific and political perspective (nothing new here, post-positivists, post-modernists, and politicos have duked it out for years).  I do acknowledge the research base in K-12 online is still developing as the field continues to develop, and as new research methods and technologies emerge.  However, it doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about K-12 online learning.  If we don’t engage in methodologies such as design-based research and the use of data mining strategies, where we simultaneously research as we design and then re-design, then we wait around for years for scientific results to continue to make their way to the public and policy stage.  And at that point, guess what?  We have a whole new set of technologies on our hands that have shifted our culture yet again that need researching.  Who’s not sitting around waiting?  All those other countries that are out-producing and out-educating Americans, as well as a few savvy online schools such as Connections Academy or Florida Virtual School that are serving hundreds of thousands of kids around the world.  When pundits argue we must wait to change schools until we have more scientifically randomized controlled studies, I keep wondering how we ended up with our current educational system given all the existing educational research on educational effectiveness, and what makes them think waiting for more of the same will change anything?

3. Why are people fighting to keep a system that is so terribly broken? Over 30% of kids in America never receive a high school diploma, over 7,000 kids drop out of school every day, and over $1 billion dollars per year is spent on college remediation.  This has been going on for many years.  Folks, that is not ok.  That is a crisis and we can’t ignore it by fighting to keep things the way they have always been, or shuffling around minor pieces.   The system needs a major rethink for a digital age where we know no geographic boundaries, and where technologies evolve at a dizzying pace.

Innovation can provide us opportunity to address challenges in new ways.  For example, through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, 100% of kids in Idaho have access to hundreds of online courses as part of their learning day.  This option never existed before the creation of IDLA. Whether students live in a large district, or in a remote rural area, any Idaho child can take AP Biology courses, dual credit college courses, or learn Mandarin Chinese, if they so choose.  That innovation has solved a real problem of access for many kids in smaller districts and rural areas that didn’t have the resources to provide such specialized courses (I hear the voices now, the “my friend’s son took a fill-in-the-blank course online and said it was horrible, they never talked to the teacher, and just filled out worksheets.”)  Yes, people do have bad experiences online, just like they do in live classrooms—just ask those 30% who never graduated from high school.  The development of standards and major accountability layers over the past several years has shifted online education from a fly-by-night operation into a full-fledged standardized and accountable system that often has better data about student learning than regular schools, because online learning behaviors, activities, and outcomes can be tracked and analyzed using data and text mining techniques that provide visual data and feedback in real time.

For those of us who work in K-12 online education, we are aware that online education, in most cases, is much more than a child sitting in front of a computer that spews out robotic curriculum and multiple choice quizzes.  From our interactions with many tens of thousands of kids and teachers, we reportedly hear first-hand that K-12 students in online or blended courses can have life-changing experiences, feel empowered, re-energized in their learning, and learn to become accountable for their own lives and career path as they head toward college. Those narratives also serve as an important form of data as we triangulate our findings.  Online education options can help students develop independent learning behaviors in a way that a forced day/time/curricular experience never can.  Online learning continues to grow at heady rates, so one has to question why….only several states have requirements for online learning options, and most of those have been enacted recently.  Yet over 2,000,000 kids do choose online courses.  And the blended education movement (part online, part live classroom) has taken major hold across the country.

I would like to see our state become a national leader in innovative learning by exploring options for keeping educational revenue in the state, or better yet, bringing revenue into the state from other states for our innovative learning offerings.  In full disclosure, I want to acknowledge that our department has had contracts with online providers, including IDLA, Connections Academy, and others, providing them online teacher training or evaluation services.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Online and blended curriculum is king.  Everyone around the globe needs it.  Why not pass legislation that allows IDLA, or any other innovative educational program, to package its curriculum and re-license it to other schools around the world?  In other words, start acting like a funded enterprise and less like a welfare program reliant on state dollars.  This could generate millions of dollars in a very short time period.  And we could rehire many of those teachers who were laid off to serve in new roles as blended learning or online course designers, teacher trainers, course facilitators, learning coaches, just-in-time tutors, and other emerging roles in education.
  • Create legislation that allows schools in Idaho to provide online professional development to teachers around the globe, for a fee.  Work with the universities to provide continuing education credits.  Once these programs are developed, they can also be re-licensed to other organizations that want to buy professional development programs.
  • Provide more technology innovation funding opportunities to local partnerships between schools, business and universities to research and develop state-of-the art learning technologies that can be used in our own schools, and again, licensed to other schools outside the state.

In other words, let’s stop being passive consumers who spend state dollars on education, and instead let’s invest in training our own people to become innovators and leaders who develop the next wave of education, and then make smart business decisions with business leaders who can make that education available to others.  While some might argue this utopian vision isn’t possible or desirable, I can let you know we live it on a daily basis in our self-support graduation program in educational technology.  We haven’t relied on state appropriations for over six years, we pay our own bills, and hire many people both in and outside of Idaho who would never have jobs otherwise.  It’s fun (and sometimes frustrating) to be at the cutting-edge of our field, but this very nature of our positioning is what creates our greatest success.  And we have more effectiveness data than any other department in our college, including e-portfolios showing learning performance outcomes aligned to national standards, video reflections on students’ personal and professional growth, course/graduate/alumni survey data, learner behavior outcomes tracked inside our learning management system, graduation and retention rates, learner satisfaction data, and more.  Innovation involves strategic risk and acceptance of the potential for failure.  We don’t get it right 100% of the time.  But we do build in cycles of R&D to understand why something didn’t work, so we can modify it and try again.

While innovation can seem very exciting to those involved directly in its development, outsiders to the innovation can often feel threatened to the point of becoming hostile.  In our work to innovate education, in our state and around the globe, my goal is to work together with all involved and interested parties, including teachers, parents, children, policymakers, organizations, and state and private schools (online or not), to understand multiple viewpoints that can help inform and influence the development of the educational innovation effort as it moves along.  From my perspective, it does involve “online” or “blended” education in a myriad of forms that should be contextualized to whatever local needs and resources might exist.  I look forward to the challenge, and invite you to join me.


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