Saturday, May 09, 2009

Distance Learning

I think there's a definite future in distance learning--learning over the internet. It won't completely replace ordinary schools for two good reasons I can think of (in addition to a few bad):
1. learning is a social process that requires contact with others, and
2. many people have a hard enough time staying on task in a classroom, getting done what needs to be done, and don't have the self-discipline to take classes over the internet.

However, I see times when distance learning can be good:
1. sick or injured students who cannot come to school,
2. make-up to avoid summer school,
3. suspended/expelled students, and
4. home-schooled students.

In most cases, the distance learning I've described would be a temporary situation.

But what if it weren't?

Last fall, more than 140 of the state’s 426 school districts used Wisconsin’s Web Academy to provide online learning to more than 800 students in grades six through 12, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

The Madison School District offers about 100 high school level online courses, and its Madison Virtual Campus started in 2005. Most students use the courses to supplement the regular school day, said Kelly Pochop, Madison’s online learning facilitator.

Some states, such as Michigan, even mandate students take an online course before graduating high school.

“If districts aren’t currently offering online courses, they’re studying ways to provide (them),” said Brian Busler, Oregon’s superintendent. Online classes, whether at the university or elementary level “have just exploded over the last several years.”

Since the state began allowing parents to send their children to any public school district in 1998, about 60 families have left the Oregon School District to attend a virtual school, Peschel said. In addition, 30 home-schooled students also have left the district.
What if some of this distance learning were done at school?

For example, this coming school year, it appears that our school will not have an AP Physics course for the first time in forever. Not enough students signed up for it. Why couldn't students take such a course via distance learning? Also, the only foreign languages my school offers are Spanish and French; what if students could take German, or Mandarin, or even Klingon via distance learning in a "distance learning lab" set up at school?

Think of the options. Schools would no longer be bound by the limitations of their own faculties. Nor would they have to compete against each other in magnet-type classes--"If you want to learn this, ours is the only school in the area that offers it." Students could go to their neighborhood schools and reap the benefits of programs taught at other schools. I see huge benefits for rural schools. And county offices of education--here in California, a relatively useless appendage of education bureaucracy--could actually become useful under a program such as this.

These are just a few thoughts that pop into my head only a couple minutes after having read the link above; I have no doubt that the idea would sound even better given more time to flesh it out. Yes, of course, issues would pop up that would need to be solved, but I think this is a case where we should find ways to make this work, not reasons why it can't. There's just too much good that could come from this.


Ellen K said...

I am writing a proposal this weekend to have AP Art History as an online course. We would get ten or twelve kids to sign up, but with attrition, we have to have at least 15 to make a class of ten. But with an online course, the numbers could go up exponentially and possibly reach students headed for engineering, medicine or other high tech fields giving them their crucial humanities credits as well as sensitizing them to the human side of the world. I hope it comes through.

Anonymous said...

As a former student, I'm curious about the fate of the AP classes. Are AP Calc AB and BC still around? What about AP Bio and Econ?

Nice blog, by the way!

Darren said...

Calc is still offered, as is Bio. I don't think Econ is anymore.

Thanks for the compliment. I hope you keep coming back, whoever you are!

MiaZagora said...

"learning is a social process that requires contact with others"

How so?

mazenko said...

Education really has to be outcome and competency-based. And if there is a substitute format that accomplishes the same outcomes, and it save students and teachers and communities time and money, there can be little objection to it.

Darren said...

Mia, if it didn't, education wouldn't have been this way for millenia.

I assert there are few who can teach themselves, either from books or from interactive media. Most humans need another human involved.

sciencectn said...

At Sierra College, where I go to take some classes, they offer distance learning and it's really quite successful. In my US history class last semester we had a TV class, which was just like a regular classroom except with cameras and microphones everywhere (it was kind of weird, but after about a week you got used to them). The lectures were available online for download through iTunes, and you would go to the testing center to take the quizzes and exams. History would probably work very well through distance learning because it probably doesn't require as much human interaction as, say, math. However, I believed they offered a few TV courses for math, and if students didn't understand it they could go to the library for tutoring or simply ask the professor. I personally think the in-classroom TV setup works the best, and not the online written tutorials, because if you have a question chances are someone in the classroom already asked it.

I don't really know about having ONLY written online tutorials, where you read it all yourself. Does this mean that students can still ask a real person for help? And if it's something like language, who's going to be there telling them that they're doing it wrong?

PeggyU said...

Our two youngest boys attend online public school. I think it works well. My husband and I are basically there to answer questions the boys might have on the material. If we are unable to help, then teachers are available to help over the phone or via email or virtual meetings through Eluminate.

The teachers at their school have gone above and beyond to provide additional activities as well. For example, our youngest son's fifth-grade teacher holds a biweekly session on Greek and Latin roots. Participation is voluntary, but it's popular with the students and attendance has increased. The sessions started with, I think, three kids and there are over twenty now who show up on a fairly regular basis.

allen (in Michigan) said...

I think my interest has, over time, shifted from distance learning to why distance learning is so attractive in the face of decades of either under-delivering or simply failing. Given the fact that computer-based learning has been around for better then forty years it's the assumption that with all that manure there's got to be a pony in there somewhere that's really fascinating.

South Carolina just announced the purchase of a whole bunch of OLPC laptops and given the virtually uniform record of failure of the use of computers in education other then the availability of budget money, whence cometh the ongoing attraction?

As to the social component of learning, that's been addressed in a number of different ways in the various efforts to dial in the factors necessary to make computer-based education a success. Didn't help much as I recall.

hobbitt said...

We do CIV learning. And I have been at schools where Spanish was taught that way. Physics, like any science, I'd have trouble with as distance learning because of lack of lab time. Though if there were a way to do that through lab days it would work.

Anna A said...

I can see another benefit. There are a lot of poor children who may not have computer access at home, and library time may also be a problem. This would allow them access too. (assuming that their neighborhood schools have the computers and internet connections necessary.)

Loni said...

I'm always apprehensive about the concept of distance learning.

For one, most people who talk about the wonders of distance learning are referring more to the wonders of our new technology...ignoring the fact that students have had the opportunity to this sort of thing since the invention of writing and clay tablets. Clearly there is a specific reason for a social interaction and class room work with an actual person. For this reason, I don't see any education revolution coming soon, at least, not because of this.

I see these classes as a higher-tech and hence more expensive form of independent study. I'm not opposed to IS; it definitely gives greater opportunities to students who are self-motivated and don't need as much instruction. My argument however is that the computer classroom can't give much more than a text book really can. There's just not the same personal interaction with the instructor or the material. I don't see it as an equal replacement for a real class. I don't think it would yield the same results (not measurable results or unmeasurable ones) and I don't think it should be worth the same number of credits.

Mrs. C said...

AHA! Are you admitting that homeschooling is of necessity a social process? I love when public school teachers do that. :]

When I began homeschooling and was naive in the cyber-school process, I looked into how this might work for our family. It's really public school at home. Which means you are "accountable" to the school people, whereas with homeschooling you are not (though you keep records to defend yourself against truancy and etc.). And I understand that to a degree, since they're paying for it and all. Let's just not fool ourselves that they are doing that "for the children." HSLDA has asserted that these classes are just "free" lures to get our children back into state-sponsored education and curriculum control.

Which means it is definitely not for us, but might be an acceptable middle ground for others. It bothers me that the state of Missouri does NOT allow you to do this online learning unless you are already homeschooling in the first place. So yeah, it's a lure to get you BACK into the school, not some wonderful service the schools are providing to meet a perceived need. Rather unfair to public school students, I think, but whatever.

BTW, Frederick Douglass is an excellent example of someone who pretty much taught himself but I am sure that you are right in that there are few who can teach themselves so thoroughly.

rightwingprof said...

My old dept is strenuously (to put it quite mildly) rejecting the idea of online, or distance ed, PhD courses. Just sayin.

tidbitor said...

Check out what's happening with Oregon and virtual schools-the legislature and OEA are basically trying to shut down one school.

Now, I'm your token-liberal reader(and teacher) here, but common sense and good pedagogy cross all lines-this is nuts!

Katie said...

In high school, I took a year of Russian and a year of Japanese by sattelite. Classes from all over the US would tune in to watch the class (I think three times a week?). Every class would get a chance to be "live" on the line with the teacher for class.

We also called a native speaker every week (once or twice) to practice conversation.

It was okay -- it is hard to do languages this way. I think it would have worked for other classes even better. It definitely requires that the students are interested in learning, instead of being disruptive.

MiaZagora said...

If a person can read with understanding, they can learn anything. In this day and age when there is not only printed media, but almost everyone has some sort of access to a computer.

There are many famous - and not-so-famous - people who were largely self-taught - from Ben Franklin to Beatrix Potter.

One of my kids recently read a book about Archimedes, which she enjoyed and talked about incessantly. Although Archimedes did attend school, it seems most of his actual experimenting and discovering was actually done alone.

I'm no Archimedes, but I've been out of school for quite a while and even I have learned things both as a result of life experience as well as independent research - whether out of curiosity or a need to know for my job. I can read. I have the ability to understand what I read. There is some type of media on just about any subject you can think of. Therefore, I conclude that I can learn just about any subject you can think of.

I have observed my children learning on their own - and they are not "exceptional" or gifted. IMO, you don't have to prod a healthy child to learn how to speak or walk or ride a bike. They ask questions. They listen. They observe. They do it. It seems to me that most everyone, barring some type of learning disability, could do the same.

"Cyberschoolers" have been doing it for quite a while now. Whether they are with a full-time cyberschool or just taking a subject or two to supplement what they learn at regular school. Programs like Time4Learning are much more affordable than private tutoring (I think it's around $10 per month).

To me, cyberschooling is great for students. Some cyberschools (and services like offer "live" classes where students can ask questions, and there is the ability for students to play the lecture as many times as they need. This is "social" as there is a teacher involved. How many teachers actually have the time to repeat things over and over for students, or even to really make sure every single student has the information they need?

My children participated in an online class recently (not "live") and it was fun. Of course, we watched the lectures together and did experiments together, which I suppose really isn't "independent" learning and, I suppose, was somewhat social. However, I'm pretty sure my fifth grader could have completed it on her own - including the experiments.

The teacher didn't have to worry about class discipline issues or anything except teaching the subject at hand. We could watch it over and over. He also filmed the experiments step by step so we could see how they were done. We had worksheets in the form of pdf files for the recording of experiments and for assessment.

If I were a teacher, it seems that this type of situation would be ideal. He seemed truly passionate about his material and was fun to watch. Best of all, my girls learned some great new things.

sciencectn said...

It seems that third-party distance learning (specifically calculus in this case) through Youtube is actually becoming quite popular. If these people are making tutorials for free, then tutorials made by paid teachers are definitely possible.

PeggyU said...

Thanks, Mia. That summed up our experiences with online learning. The key to it is self-motivation ... which is essential for success in any environment. It's easier to sustain that motivation when you have more educational choice.

In our case, I saw that the online school curriculum was better and more well-rounded than what I had seen in our local public school, especially in English instruction. For example, our two younger boys have actually had to learn grammar in depth, which was not something their older siblings got at the brick-and-mortar school. They have had a greater exposure to literary classics, including the Bible (yes, this is a public school curriculum).

The learning is more self-paced, so whereas our youngest son once was required to wait until other students caught up to his level to move on in reading, he is now moving on his own schedule. So for him, it's a more efficient use of his time.

I am not saying that there is no value to on-site learning, and certainly some things are better taught face-to-face. But the online courses have certainly been the best option for our kids.

Anonymous said...

The virtual schools here in Wisconsin have gotten a lot of trouble from WEAC, our state teachers' union. Even though they'r public schools staffed by WEAC members, the union hates them, since so many fewer teachers are needed to run a virtual school than a brick-and-mortar one. Unfortunately, in our election last month, the candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction who was solidly pro-virtual schools lost, so it remains to be seen if they'll continue to exist.