Considering Online K-12 Courses? Some Things to Keep in Mind

This past weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran a story covering the rapid growth of online K-12 education. “My Teacher is an App,” by Stephanie Banchero and Stephanie Simon, discusses the rise of online and hybrid classrooms providing a fairly balanced account of successes and disappointments. Here are some of the key points:

  • “In just the past few months, Virginia has authorized 13 new online schools. Florida began requiring all public-high-school students to take at least one class online, partly to prepare them for college cybercourses. Idaho soon will require two. In Georgia, a new app lets high-school students take full course loads on their iPhones and BlackBerrys. Thirty states now let students take all of their courses online.”
  • “Nationwide, an estimated 250,000 students are enrolled in full-time virtual schools, up 40% in the last three years, according to Evergreen Education Group, a consulting firm that works with online schools. More than two million pupils take at least one class online, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade group.”
  • “Although some states and local districts run their own online schools, many hire for-profit corporations such as K12 Inc. of Herndon, Va., and Connections Academy in Baltimore, a unit of education services and technology company Pearson PLC.”
  • “A few states, however, have found that students enrolled full-time in virtual schools score significantly lower on standardized tests, and make less academic progress from year to year, than their peers.”
  • “At Southwest Learning Centers, a small chain of charter schools in Albuquerque, N.M., standardized test scores routinely outpace state and local averages, according to data provided by the schools. Students complete most lessons online but come into class for teacher support and hands-on challenges, such as collaborating to design and build a weight-bearing bridge.”
  • “The growth of cybereducation is likely to affect school staffing, which accounts for about 80% of school budgets. A teacher in a traditional high school might handle 150 students. An online teacher can supervise more than 250, since he or she doesn’t have to write lesson plans and most grading is done by computer.
Mill. Factory. Sweat shop. I’m sorry, I think I may have just editorialized. Hardly a sweat shop I know, but it strikes me that most of what makes teaching worthwhile gets lost in an online model that reduces the teacher to some combination of a manager, customer experience expert, and help desk attendant.
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  • “In Idaho, Alan Dunn, superintendent of the Sugar-Salem School District, says that he may cut entire departments and outsource their courses to online providers. “It’s not ideal,” he says. “But Idaho is in a budget crisis, and this is a creative solution.”

Other states see potential savings as well. In Georgia, state and local taxpayers spend $7,650 a year to educate the average student in a traditional public school. They spend nearly 60% less—$3,200 a year—to educate a student in the statewide online Georgia Cyber Academy, saving state and local tax dollars. Florida saves $1,500 a year on every student enrolled online full time.”

“Two companies, K12 and Connections Academy, dominate the market for running public cyberschools. Full-time enrollment in online schools using the K12 curriculum has doubled in the past four years, to 81,000, the company says. K12′s revenue grew 35% to $522 million in its fiscal year ended June 30, when it reported net income of $13 million.”

Beware the profit motive. I’m no opponent of the free market properly understood, but limited experience with for-profit schools (which do not include all private schools) suggests to me that the quality of education often gets undermined by the dynamics of the market. (And that was putting it kindly.) It may be especially problematic when for-profit schools tap into government money.

  • “In the end, virtual schooling “comes down to what you make of it,” says Rosie Lowndes, a social-studies teacher at Georgia Cyber Academy. Kids who work closely with parents or teachers do well, she says. “But basically letting a child educate himself, that’s not going to be a good educational experience.” The computer, she says, can’t do it alone.”

True, but “what you can make of it” is already limited by the constraints of the medium.

To sum up: Enrollment in online courses is increasing rapidly. School districts are saving money. Some private companies are turning an impressive profit. Online teachers help students navigate ready made modules and supervise more students than their in classroom peers. Results are mixed. Hybrid appears to work better than all online. Parent involvement remains important.

For a more detailed and impassioned breakdown of the article see Will Richardson’s post here.

Things to consider: Students vary as do their needs and the circumstances under which they flourish. It is as misleading to argue that online learning is the cure for all the ills plaguing K-12 education as it would be to suggest that it is never, under any circumstances a viable option. I’ve been mostly critical of the online learning experience. This criticism is informed by my experience as a student in numerous online courses and my experiences as a classroom teacher. (You can read my mostly critical comments in this series of posts.) But it is increasingly likely that students will encounter at least one online course during their high school or college career.

When deciding whether or not to enroll students in online courses, here are some things to take into consideration:

  • What is the respective quality of available educational options? In my estimation, the ideal face-to-face classroom beats the ideal online experience, all other factors being equal. But very often the ideal face-to-face classroom is far from the reality on offer at local schools. Know your school and the faculty’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • What courses work well online and which do not? A math course which already tends to be designed in progressive modular fashion will translate into an online environment more effectively than a literature class in which, ideally, lively discussion characterizes the face-to-face dynamic. Science classes that are heavy in hands-on experimentation may also loses something significant in translation. Students may also find that both subjects that are difficult for them and subjects that they are very interested in are better taken face-to-face in the presence of expert teachers.
  • What is the motivation for taking online courses? Online courses may allow students who are unable to attend traditional schools due to health issues to keep up with their education and this is certainly a good reason to consider online learning. Additionally, motivated students may desire to learn about a subject that is not offered at traditional schools. Again, sound motivation. Some students, on the other hand, may believe that online coursework is easier and that it will afford them maximal freedom and down time at home. This may not be the best motivation especially since studies have suggested that students who do best in online coursework are highly motivated, diligent, and well organized.
  • What are the student’s strengths and weaknesses? Since students that tend to do well in online environments tend to be those who are intrinsically motivated and well-organized, it is important to honestly consider whether a student has already demonstrated these qualities in traditional settings since it is not likely that those qualities will spontaneously emerge in a less structured setting.
  • Finally, remember that face-to-face interactions regarding the subject matter will always augment the online experience. Ask your student questions about the courses they are taking online. Granted most teenagers may not be very forthcoming; but, if they are willing, a dinner table conversation about what they are learning online could go a long way toward making a less than idea learning situation more valuable.

From Novice to Expert: The Body’s Role in the Acquisition of Knowledge

Hubert Dreyfus, following Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, considers the body an indispensable component of knowledge acquisition. For Dreyfus, and those who place a similar emphasis on embodiment, human beings are not merely minds who process information. We are embodied minds who learn and experience reality by processing more than just discreet bits of data which can be formalized and verbalized. Much of what we know, in their view, cannot, in fact, be verbalized or formalized. Instead, this sort of knowledge is carried in the body in the form of habit or pre-rational understanding that yields intuitive comprehension and action. In light of this view of knowledge, Dreyfus is skeptical of online learning because of the manner in which it appears to abstract the body from the experience of learning.

Dreyfus expressed his concerns with online eduction in his 2001 book, On the Internet. He begins by noting the enthusiasm with which some educators were then touting the potential of the Internet to transform education. He cites, for example, Reed Hundt, one time dean at Yale University who believed that “the new Internet system of education” had the potential to “bring down” the older, traditional model of education.

Hundt, to be clear, was cheery about this possibility. Dreyfus notes that some educators were much less sanguine about the potential of the Internet, but in his estimation neither side offered anything by way of an argument for their position. To fill this gap, Dreyfus articulates a theory of skill and knowledge acquisition in which the body plays a central role. By implication, if Dreyfus’ theory holds, then online education would appear to be an inadequate environment for education.

In Dreyfus’ view, a learner proceeds through the following stages of skills acquisition: novice, advanced beginner, competence, proficiency, expertise, and practical wisdom. As he considers each of these stages, Dreyfus provides three variations of skill acquisition: a motor skill, an intellectual skill, and “what takes place in the lecture hall.”

The running example in the first two variations are, respectively, learning to drive and learning to play chess. It is in these first two variations that the strength of his exposition is most evident, but I’ll use the third variation to briefly describe Dreyfus’ model. Here then are the stages of knowledge acquisition briefly explained.

Novice: At this stage context independent information about the domain is communicated along with basic rules that the learner can recognize without yet possessing the skill in question.

Advanced beginner: Context comes into play at this stage as learners, through experience with the material, are led to recognize context dependent meaning of the information and rules that they learned as novices.

Competence: As students learn more about the material they may be overwhelmed by the amount of relevant information and aspects of a situation that they are now able to discern. Achieving competence depends on developing the ability to make decisions about what is most important or relevant to a particular situation or problem. At this point, since the volume of potentially relevant information is so large, a learner must begin to intuitively discern rather than consciously process all of the possibilities. Additionally, at this stage Dreyfus also notes that a certain emotional response, either the despair of failure or the exhilaration of success, will significantly influence whether or not the learner continues on to the later stages.

Proficiency: The proficient learner, reinforced by positive emotional experiences, will internalize knowledge gained from extensive experience with problems in the domain of learning and will intuitively recognize the salient features of any new problem and see, without consciously processing a wide array of rules and maxims, what needs to be solved.

Expertise: In Dreyfus’ own words, “The expert not only sees what needs to be achieved; thanks to his vast repertoire of situational discriminations, he also sees immediately how to achieve his goal.”

Practical wisdom: Finally, the learner will have not only mastered a skill so as to intuitively solve problems, they will also learn “the general ability to do the appropriate thing, at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way.”This essentially entails a culturally aware and sensitive manner of being an expert.

Dreyfus does not argue that online learning is without value. Online learning may get us as far as the first two stages; but not, in his view, much farther than that. Beyond the first couple of stages of knowledge/skill acquisition, embodiment is indispensable:

“Distance learning enthusiasts … need to realize that only emotional, involved, embodied human beings can become proficient and expert and only they can become masters. So, while they are teaching specific skills teachers must also be incarnating and encouraging involvement. Moreover, learning through apprenticeship requires the presence of experts, and picking up the style of life that we share with others in our culture requires begin in the presence of our elders.”

It is always worth asking what view of knowledge or what philosophy of education is assumed when we engage in discussions and debates about pedagogy, on- or offline. It seems to me that the most optimistic visions for online learning attain a certain plausibility only on the assumption of a rather narrow view of what knowledge or an education entails. Sometimes this is the best that can be hoped for and we should not besmirch online learning’s ability to bring some education to those whose only other option would be no education at all; again context and situation matter. But strictly online education hardly represents an ideal — unless we already assume that knowledge and learning amount to the mere aggregation of discreet bits of data.

Teaching: What is There to Love?

Dini Metro-Roland and Paul Farber offer an elegiac defense of traditional, face-to-face teaching in their 2010 essay, “Lost Causes: Online Instruction and the Integrity of Presence.” Their implicit critique of online learning is framed as a lover’s concern for the well-being of the beloved, in this case the craft of teaching. The authors note that there is a sense of inevitability to the growth of online courses, and, while noting that fiscal considerations play some role in this, they acknowledge that the online format confers certain benefits upon students. Believing that the most important difference between traditional and online settings is the form of presence involved in each, the authors group the perceived benefits of online instruction under the notion of “utility of presence” which they contrast to the “integrity of presence” that attends face-to-face instruction.

Utility of presence is premised on the freedom, flexibility, and control that online instruction offer to participants. Free from the constraints of embodiment, online students may engage their courses asynchronously at their own convenience and they may exert “maximal control over when and for how long one will do what is called for in making one’s presence felt.” Altogether the medium allows for “engagement constituted by patterns of individual choice.”

Metro-Roland and Farber correctly link the dynamics of utility of presence to the ethos of the broader online experience in which online learning is embedded. They note, for example, that, “Being online carries with it the ready capacity, moment to moment, to layer content (for example, background music, instant messaging, online gaming) or launch into other forms of activity altogether — whether course related or not — at any time.”

Consequently, the online learning experience privileges “the capacity to attend to just what one wants or needs right now and, recognizing the vast range of options, learning to dismiss or disregard the rest.” This form of “knowingness” is “not suspended when one comes to an online course.” In their estimation, the virtual presence that constitutes online learning is finally “the product of judgments as to how to gratify one’s inclinations and efficiently serve one’s purposes online.”

This is a point that is all too often missed. The medium of online learning is the Internet and the habits and practices that intend the medium, including for example fractured patterns of attention, likewise shape the experience online courses. Metro-Roland and Farber do not ground the elaboration of the “utility of presence” in an indictment of the quality of students who enroll in online courses nor in mere nostalgia for traditional forms. Rather, they ground their discussion in what they take to be the nature of the medium and the modes of interaction it necessarily elicits from users:

We speculate that the tendency favors the virtues of convenience, accessibility, efficiency, personal satisfaction, (and profitability). To take hold in the boundless context of mediated choice, all involved must be attuned to what they choose to bring to the transaction and the purposes they have for doing so. 

By contrast, embodied presence is constrained and bounded with regard to space, time, and self-presentation: “Students and teachers alike are branded by their dress, gender, and skin color and time-space constraints often contribute to our anxiety, frustration, and ennui.”

Yet for all of these limitations, the authors believe that what they term “integrity of presence” is an unpredictably emergent property of embodied classrooms that sustains the love of teaching. Quick to distance their notion of integrity from traces of elitism that term may invoke, they clarify the concept as follows: “Integrity as we are speaking of it is not a matter of the fixed character of an individual; rather it is inherent in the quality of attention, and arises as an effect of the engagement of those present.”

This kind of attention has the possibility of generating genuinely transformative encounters between embodied participants in the unpredictable and sometimes messy space of the face-to-face classroom. This kind of engagement is irreducibly embodied and, in the authors’ view, unattainable in online environments. As they put it, “Integrity of presence is thus tenuous and unpredictable, not the product of pure will.” Putting the matter thus reinforces the contrast with utility of presence which is characterized by the expansion of choice and exercise of will.

Metro-Roland and Farber conclude by conceding that “embodied presence in teaching, even in optimal cases, is inefficient” and that “it is unclear that traditional instruction can compete.” Online instruction “promises egalitarian relationships of utility and a field of choices with which one can tailor one’s presence, secured from critical scrutiny and unwanted entanglements” and by do doing is aligned with culture’s mediated zeitgeist. But for all of its utility and efficiency, the online experience fails to generate the sorts of moments that redeem the practice of teaching. Describing those moments, the authors write,

Such things happen, as we all know, though we never quite know when, or why. Slogging along, grappling with the forms and content of face-to-face teaching, the endless iterations of classroom meetings, the situation sometimes gels. Most everyone has been there we suspect, though here we must appeal to your experience of things coming together — maybe not for all or all at once, but tangibly — it gets “real,” the body language changes, eyes brighten, a restless desire of some to jump in and take part becomes evident, perhaps a hearty gale of shared laughter, a plenitude of significant connections and avenues to pursue comes into view, the enervation morphs into heightened energy.

It is moments like these, that answer the most fundamental question: “in the embodied presence of face-to-face teaching, burdened as it is by spatial, temporal, and social limitations, just what is there to love?”

With an eloquence and style uncharacteristic of articles that appear in scholarly journals of education, Metro-Roland and Farber remind us that there is in fact much to love.

Disabilities, Bias, and Online Education

In “The Invisible Audience and the Disembodied Voice: Online Teaching and the Loss of Body Image,” Joanne Buckley offers a very personal reflection on the possibilities online education offers professors and students with physical disabilities. Buckley, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, found that her “experiences teaching writing online have been the most experimental, fruitful, and often the most intimate work I have done, mainly because I feel freed from the real—and perceived—constraints of my physical body.”

Buckley’s paper is based largely on the contrasting responses she has received in online as opposed to traditional classroom settings. She believes that in the online environment she is unencumbered by the biases that unfortunately confront physically handicapped professors. But not only professors: “The absence of barriers between students that may result from differences in age, race, and gender seems to help make communication among students easier and less restrained.”

Furthermore, while it is obvious that the online classroom relieves disabled students and professors from the physical constraints of inadequately designed classrooms, Buckley argues that the online classroom also confers psychological benefits. To a list of benefits that includes the privacy needed to write well, greater opportunity for participation, and personalized pacing, she adds “the chance to avoid being judged by one’s physical appearance.” Buckley also believes that greater credibility attaches to her person when she is communicating in disembodied venues. Finally, Buckley also contends that her wheelchair as well as the difficulty with which she stands up to write on the board or use the overhead projector amounts to a significant distraction from the actual content of her teaching.

For all of these reasons, Buckley is hopeful that the disembodied experience of online education will create opportunities for students to learn and express themselves without having to deal with the prejudices that sometimes shape fully embodied interactions. Moreover, the professor or student is freed not only from the bias of others, but also from the anxieties that attend the anticipation of such treatment. The online space then, precisely because of its disembodied character, becomes a utopian space where pure minds engage free from the complications attending the body and its particularities.

Underlying Buckley’s analysis is the assumption that the body and the self (or, selves) are only contingently related to one another. So, for example, she approvingly cites the following observation by a person interviewed by Sherry Turkle for Life on the Screen: “why grant such superior status to the self that has the body when the selves that don’t have bodies are able to have different kinds of experiences?” Likewise, she borrows Emerson’s metaphorical rendering of soul and body as dreams and beasts respectively and suggests, again following Turkle, that computer mediated communication can, for a time, hold “the beast at bay in pursuit of the dream.”

For those with physical disabilities, a technology that enhances access to educational opportunities is a welcome development. Buckley reminds us that most of our thinking about online education is conducted through the lens of those whose bodies are whole. But one wonders whether in its hiding from view the body and its particularities, online education does not perpetuate, to some degree,  the very prejudices it purportedly overcomes. In fact, such prejudices are not overcome at all. It seems preferable to bring students together in a fully embodied context so that whatever prejudices exist are not merely bracketed, but rather confronted and truly overcome.

Online Education and Its Discontents

A good deal of my course work over the last couple of years has been conducted in online environments. My university offers three types of courses: face-to-face courses, hybrid courses with online and face-to-face components, and fully online course. The majority of my courses have been either hybrid or fully online. On the whole, I’ve not been pleased. This is not necessarily an indictment of the professors who have supervised these courses. It is true that some have been better executed than others, but even the best have been a disappointment despite the professor’s best efforts.

I’m not sure how typical my estimation of online education may be, but The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that the growth of online courses has slowed and may be approaching a plateau. Here are some of the findings of the survey of more than 2,500 institutions of higher education:

  • An online course is now part of the experience of 31% of all students
  • Enrollment in online courses grew by 10%, considerably less than last year’s 21%
  • 67% of academic leaders rated online education as the same or superior to face-to-face learning
  • Fewer than one-third of chief academic officers feel their faculty “accept the value and legitimacy of online education. This percent has changed little over the last eight years.”

For my part, and take this with a grain of salt, I suspect that “academic leaders” may be driven by considerations that have less to do with quality education than with other benefits that may arise from the implementation of online classes. More online classes, for example, mean growing the student body without necessarily expanding the physical plant which is always an expensive venture.

Online classes do confer certain benefits on students, of course, flexibility being only the most obvious. Again, though, I wonder how many of these benefits are related to the actual educational quality of the online experience. I realize that face-to-face classes in many instances will also leave much to be desired, but based on my limited experience, I’ll take an imperfect face-to-face class over an ideal online class in most cases.

Ultimately, I attribute this to the manner in which the medium abstracts the body from the learning experience. In the next day or two I’ll be posting some more reflections on the topic. If you have had any experiences as either a student or a teacher in an online environment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.