The US conversation about the role of higher standards in education is about to intensify due to the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results. My question is whether this will help or hinder the exciting and promising innovations in P-20 education. A second question is whether this conversation will potentially marginalize certain important values for education. Some will use these new numbers as a war cry for higher standards, arguing that we are falling behind in what is being referred to as a global competition. In the recent PISA results, the United States ranked 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading. As noted in an email from Jeb Bush through the Foundation for Excellent in Education, The United States was also passed up by countries like Ireland and Poland.
Regardless of my opinion, I’m quite certain the internationally benchmarked standards are here for the longterm in P-12 education. At the same time, I offer the following five question to the broader conversation.
1) As wisely noted by Neil Postman, every technology is a Faustian bargain. Things are gained and things are lost. What about the technology of international standards? What is gained and what is lost when we emphasize this approach to education reform?
2) What do the international standards fail to measure the we value in education? People tend to value what they measure. The more we measure something, the more we think about and attend to the thing that we are measuring. If we focus more on what shows up in the standards, what values do we start to minimize? How do we maintain a strong commitment to those things that we value, but that are not in the standards?
3) Is it possible to be amazing at math, science and reading; but lack human agency and the capacity for lifelong self-directed learning? People can score well on all the tests, but the United States is historically founded upon the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This vision and conviction calls for distinct approaches to education, ones that value, highlight, practice, and are shaped by such rights.
4) With increased focus upon certain standards comes contingent funding that reward those who focus upon those standards above other factors. How does this impact education reform needs that vary from one context/community to another? How does it impact promising educational innovations? All of the high standards, accountability measures and teacher resources will not solve issues related to poverty and any number of other social issues that impact what happens in education. How do we ensure that there are adequate resources to address such needs and various innovations in different communities?
5) Do we want our education system to be about mandating what students should like and focus upon, or do we want a system that also helps students find and build upon their unique strengths, gifts and abilities?
None of these are intended to discount the value of developing high levels of literacy, numeracy and scientific literacy. I simply offer them as a balance to the conversation, an effort to help us avoid abandoning or ignoring certain core values at the cost of a few others.
Over the past several years, I’ve started to incorporate more self-directed learning opportunities within otherwise traditional courses. These typically took different forms of project-based learning, with learners having different levels of self-direction. Such experiences so far have usually taken place in otherwise traditional learning organizations with populations of learners who are deeply rooted in traditional notions of schools, namely pre-service and existing K-20 educators. As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I’m starting to notice strong patterns in learner profiles and reactions, ranging from those who are delighted with the opportunity and thrive, to those who consider such practices to be an abdication of the proper role as teacher. I’ll use this post as a chance to reflect on these reactions, the reasons behind them, and how we might respond to them.
The Schooling Discourse
Given that my work has been mostly with pre-service and graduate education students, these are typically people who accept (or at least tolerate) the traditional notion of schooling and related constructs. While some dislike them, most are comfortable thinking about learning in terms of letter grades, quizzes, tests, homework, lesson plans, credit hours, grade point averages, learning objectives, discrete courses and subjects, standards, the role of student, and the role of teacher. While those of us involved on other forms of learning are well aware that none of these are necessary for high-impact learning, such terms constitute the dominant discourse in formal education. There are certainly different opinions about each of these terms or phrases and how we use them, but there is a common acceptance that such terms make up the vocabulary of an educator. I mention this because each of these terms conjure certain memories and expectations about a formal learning experience. More broadly, this means that efforts in self-directed learning sometimes clash with certain traditional notions of formal schooling. As a result, those who value or find comfort in such constructs may become resistant or critical of alternatives.
There are two main ways to approach this challenge: build on new ground, or re-describe and expand on existing terms. One is to focus upon new ground, learning experiences outside of the confines of traditional schooling. People do not expect to use “schooling” terminology when they are exploring a topic for fun and on their “free time.” Most of us don’t use schooling vocabulary when we think of relationships, hobbies, or even our work. The digital world gives us ample opportunities to do this, with the rapid growth in resources for informal and self-directed learning on the web. A second option is to expand on the definitions of schooling terms, to engage in re-description of these terms. This involves accepting the value of a term like assessment, but then expanding our understanding of assessment by discussing concepts like assessment as learning, self-assessment, and peer-to-peer learning. In my work, this second option seems to provide much value, since the learners that I serve are usually living out their work in more traditional schooling settings. At the same time, a few high-impact experiences with the first approach (out-of-school learning) is a powerful tool for helping us consider the possibilities. Debriefing those experiences with discussion about what we can apply to our schools has great potential.
While the Brain Thrives on Novelty, it also Find Comfort in Familiarity
Even while some are open to exploring new approaches to teaching and learning, too rapid of a shift toward self-directed learning can provoke fear, self-doubt, criticism, and uncertainty. As a result, introducing self-directed learning is often not effective with an overnight transformation of the classroom. Many will not be prepared emotionally or intellectually for such a task.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, a simple way of thinking about teacher-directed versus self-directed is by looking at the questions that drive the design of a lesson or unit: What do students need to learn? How will I know when they’ve learned it? How will I monitor their progress? How will I help them learn it? The goal of self-directed learning is to eventually turn each of those into student-centered questions: What do I need to learn? How will I know when I’ve learned it? How will I monitor my progress? How will I learn it? If learners lack the competence, confidence or both of these to ask and answer such questions, that will conjure negative emotions and reactions.
Self-directed Learning Skills
One of the more effective ways to address this lack of competence or confidence is to devise a plan to help students grow in their capacity to ask and answer the questions of the self-directed learner. This can be done gradually, starting by inviting learner input on the goals for a given unit and how to best assess the learning. There may be “non-negotiable” standards or outcomes, but learners can enhance or supplement them. They can also cooperate with the teacher to create a solid assessment plan. In addition, self-directed learning can be preceded by formal opportunities to grow in skills with goal-setting, self-assessment methods and strategies, skills in self-monitoring, and building a toolbox of learning and self-teaching strategies.
When I’ve incorporated opportunity for self-directed learning in classes, the struggles usually relate to this area of competency and/or confidence. Some students are able to flourish right away, while others seek more direction and guidance. From my perspective, this is natural, and it speaks to the ongoing value of a teach/mentor/coach for groups of learners, helping each learner progress toward. Necessary support, mentoring and resources often make the differences between a successful and unsuccessful move toward self-directed learning.
Missing the “Why” of Self-Directed Learning
Skills and confidence are not the online factor. Beliefs and values play a critical role as well. For this reason, the why of self-directed learning is a critical conversation. In fact, for it to be successful, this requires a cultural changing within learning organizations, a move toward a compelling why. Why self-directed learning? What is limiting about the traditional teacher-directed environment? This challenges us to look at the broader aims of education. This is where we might look at self-directed learning as a means of championing human agency, increased access and opportunity, and the critical import of self-efficacy to address any number of broader issues in society. This comes through discussion, storytelling, and a guided activities that give ample opportunity for self-discovery of the whys behind self-directed learning.
While this is not an exhaustive list of challenges to moving toward self-directed learning, it addresses some of the more critical considerations. If you see others, please consider sharing them in the comment section.
How can it be that professional development is not the key to teacher professional development? What I mean is that the common understanding of professional development as training events is not what actually results in teachers growing professionally. If we focus upon the events and activities, we may miss out on what actually helps educators refine their knowledge, skill and ability to help students learn. If it doesn’t come from in-services, conferences, workshops, and courses, then what does help?
To be fair, these can help, but other factors come first. These are the conditions that allow those other professional development activities to have a significant impact upon teachers.
1) A Culture of High Standards and Expectations
This does not mean that I champion some sort of merciless, top-down drill-sergeant leadership. It does mean that a culture of high expectations impacts us. It is not a coincidence that history is full of innovators, authors and change-agents who spent time with each other. They challenged each other toward greatness. When I was a child, someone once claimed, “Show me your friend’s and I’ll show you your future.” There is much that I didn’t like about that statement and I still don’t. At the same time, there is a proverbial truth to it. The culture and standards of those around us can inspire, encourage, and challenge in positive ways. A culture of low standards, minimal expectations for teachers, and one where teacher’s don’t except one another to be their best for the students will have an adverse impact on teacher growth and development. I’m one of the last people to argue for rigid and legalistic standards for teachers, but in all of my visits to schools over the years, it is hard to deny that high expectations among teachers make a difference.
2) A Culture of Formative Feedback
We get better with specific feedback on how we are doing. This is why many emphasize the importance of reflective practice for teachers. That is essentially a form of formative self-feedback, and it helps us think about how things went, what we want to keep doing, what we need to change, and how we can better meet the needs of different learners. At the same time, self-feedback is often not enough. Feedback from students, parents, other teachers, and coaches also helps. Each gives insight on something of value. Students help us to see things from their perspective and they might offer us with an insight about what they need that we are unable to se from a teacher or parent perspective. Fellow teachers give us good and important feedback based upon their own knowledge of teaching and learning. In addition, a gifted teaching and learning coach, trained to focus upon that which has the greatest impact, can be a powerful resource for personal and professional growth. However, all of this is largely ineffective without a person (and even a teacher culture) that values, accepts and embraces formative feedback, and sees it as something than can help one grow as an effective educator.
3) A Growth Mindset and a Culture of Trust
This requires teachers having a growth mindset (confidence that they can get better) and for there to be a community of trust, one where teachers are not fearful of letting some of their limitations and challenges be seen by others. For the growth mindset, that means letting go of this idea that teaching is nothing more than a gift that you have or you don’t, that it is somehow a genetic trait. Anyone can become a better teacher, and it is important for each teacher to believe this. Once that is in place, then the trust becomes important. Not only do we need to believe that we can get better, we need to be able to be vulnerable and trust others to help us grow. This vulnerability can be difficult for any of us, but as we develop a culture of trust and openness, we also help build a culture that embraces the power of formative feedback.
4) A Culture of Teaching and Learning
Already a decade ago, the idea of professional learning communities started to gain attention in schools. Not long after that, we found countless schools hosting “professional learning teams” that rarely discussed student learning, strategies to improve student learning, and how to make adjustment to help students learn. Instead, I found many groups of teachers gathering to discuss how to address behavior in the hallway or any number of secondary issues. At the same time, when I visited schools that were known for high levels of student growth and learning, I heard teachers, students and administrators talking with each other about teaching and learning. Their focus was upon what students were learning, how they were progressing, how they could make adjustments to help with the learning, how to remove barriers to learning, and how to further support and empower students. These conversations were often specific, practical, and quickly turned into action. If we want to see teachers thrive in helping foster high-impact learning communities of students, then that requires having a community that truly places learning as a core value.
5) A Student Learning First Mindset
This seems obvious, but if we watch the policies, rules and practices in learning organizations of all levels, we quickly see things set in place based upon teacher need, interest or preference. Usually, this is easily seen in scheduling of classes, the structure of classes, grading plans in courses, and many classroom rules and procedures. In fact, we’ve become so used to this that we sometimes don’t notice such things even when they are brought to our attention. Consider, for example, what day of the week certain assignments are due. What about policies on “late work”? While the reason given might sound like they are about the students (to teach them timelines, for example), that is not always the full story. There is a need to be realistic with this fifth point. This is not about letting students do everything they want or about teachers burning themselves out. This is simply about re-evaluating our practices and polices in view of what will best help students learn, even when it requires teachers to change.
As we have these five elements in growing measure, then we are likely to see professional development having a greater benefit for teachers. They will seek out and learn from these other PD activities in a way that helps them genuinely grow as effective educators.
There are certainly examples of excellent teachers who cling to these five values even when they are not present in their school as a whole, and these teachers often continue to have a large and lasting impact. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful and exciting thing to see an entire learning organization that holds to these five values. It can made for a pleasant, challenging, inspiriting learning community where students and teachers are growing and learning together in often impressive and unexpected ways.
I had a great time this week connecting with people around the world at the Global Education Conference. This free and open online conference is one of best that I’ve seen, including participants and presenters from seemingly every continent. As part of the event, I had a chance to present on a couple of topics: one about global perspectives on grading and assessment and a second on helping students development personal learning networks. This post is a chance to recap and reflect further on that second topic.
However, there is a smaller and potentially even more significant conversation about personal learning networks that is taking place. That consists of a growing number of us who are looking at the idea of a personal learning network, combining it with the promise and possibility of self-directed learning and starting to think more about how we might empower and encourage students to cultivate their own personal learning networks.
What if learning communities and organizations made student personal learning networks an integral part of the learning experience? As students progress through their schooling years, what if they cultivated a deeper and more substantive global personal learning network? Informed by the idea of connectivism, a student personal learning network is one that helps learners not only learn about a given topic, but also grow in their understanding of how to cultivate and make use of knowledge networks. It is one thing to study world geography out of a textbook. It an entirely different experience to connect with people around the world, learning from each, comparing and contrasting geography in different parts of the world, and building meaningful and sometimes persistent connections with people around the world.
A Little Learning Theory Background
If we look at some of the trend in education over the past century, we can see them as extensions of four learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism and connectivism. Behaviorism is where we get things like measurable learning objectives in education. This is the body of work that focused upon observable behavior, reward, punishments, classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Behaviorism is often associated with names like Watson, Skinner and Thorndike.
The influence of behaviorism in education can be traced to the early part of the 20th century, but it continues to inform thought and practice today. We see it informing the work of many scholars and educators over the last century, and it can also be seen as a significant influence in the push toward the use of observable and measurable learning objectives. Teachers in the 1960s and 1970s started to be introduced to this idea through books like Robert Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, but by the 1980s use of such objectives became common practice in schools around the United States. If you can’t see it, measure it and document it, then it loses significance from a behaviorist perspective.
Alongside the influence of behaviorism we saw the development of cognitivism. One of the more well-known educational influences of this movement relates to the idea of developmental psychology, when we discovered that the brain develops in certain stages and we can start to plan learning experiences based upon where people are in these developmental stages. Where behaviorism focused upon external observable behavior, cognitivism invited attention to the inner workings of brain.
Constructivism emerged amid these two perspectives on learning, adding yet another strand to the conversation. As the name might suggest, constructivism focused upon the idea that knowledge is not simply something that one person transfers to another, but knowledge is constructed within an individual through experience. For many educators, John Dewey is likely the first name that comes to mind when thinking about such ideas. You may also think of people like Vygotsky, Kolb, and Montessori.
While I represent these three as if they came in a nice and neat chronology, the reality is that they often crossed paths with another. We see amply evidence of them intermingling, especially when we look at educational models and practices over the last century. Today it is common to find a educators who describe their educational philosophy and practice in a way that seems to relate to all three of these in one way or another.
More recently, even into the 21st century, we find yet another perceptive added to the conversation. George Siemens and Stephen Downes introduced connectivism, which seems to suggest that knowledge is not simply something that exists in our brains. Instead, knowledge exists in our connections with other people, resources and communities. This resonates with the experience of many in this digital and information age, as we often find that our connections with others is what enables us to work and flourish. Medical professionals rely upon complex data systems and other professionals for certain tasks. Even historians, sometimes thought of as solitary scholars, now share rich data sets on the web and collaborate with one another to carry out research goals and tasks (See the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database as an example).
Now allow me to turn our attention to the topic of self-directed learning for a moment. As I look at learning organizations today, I see two major approaches to teaching and learning. I will use a fishing analogy for this example. Some schools are set up as fish distribution centers. They are like fish markets where a person is given a fish and can then prepare it and eat it. Other learning organizations function more like places of fishing lessons. They don’t just give out the fish. They teach the people how to fish for themselves. The first is the school that seems content with distribution as the goal, leaving the learners dependent upon a teacher to grow and learn. The second focuses upon equipping learners with the ability to learn for themselves, allowing them to develop the skills necessary to thrive as a learner for life. From this perspective, the goal of a learning organization is to help students progress toward independence.
In reality, few learning organization are one or the other of these two. They are most often at some point in a spectrum between the two. Some focus upon content distribution with some opportunity for self-directed learning, while others are heavy on self-directed learning with occasional content distribution. An easy way to think about this is to consider the spectrum of a school based upon four questions (as seen below). One the one side we have a more teacher-directed approach. On the right side, we have a more self-directed approach. Usually we find schools that vary on the spectrum for the four questions. Whatever the case, my argument is that our goal is for all learners to eventually be empowered and able to function on the far right side of this chart.
Allow me to add one more piece to this puzzle before drawing our attention to the final picture of a student personal learning network. This last piece relates to the concept of self-blended learning. Blended learning is the mixing of face-to-face and online learning. Some talk about self-blended learning as a situation where a learner takes online courses and some face-to-face courses. I suggest that this is too limiting of a definition. Instead, I use self-blended learning to mean any situation where a learner self-blends a learning experience, combining connections in the online and face-to-face world to learn and grow. If this interests you, I provided some examples here. From this perspective, self-blended learning is self-directed learning plus informed blended learning.
Pulling it All Together
This finally brings us back to idea of a student personal learning network, which is a mix of connectivism, self-directed learning and self-blended learning. As defined at Wikipedia, “A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from…” When I ask people to describe their personal learning network, they sometimes start by describing the technologies that they use, tools like Twitter, blogs, YouTube, and Google Hangouts. That is understandable because these are the tools that allow them to connect with their network. However, I argue that the network is largely the people, communities and resources; not the technologies themselves. If I showed you a picture of a large public swimming pool full of people and asked you to describe what you saw, you would likely not describe the technology of a swimming pool. You would instead talk about the people, what they were doing and how they are behaving. Similarly, a personal learning network is first about our relationships and connections with people and resources. We use the tools to strengthen, lengthen, and make such connections.
A Student Personal Learning Network
A student personal learning network is, therefore, a rich and ever-growing series of connections with people, resources, and communities around the world…connections that allow us to grow in knowledge, skill, ability and perspective. What if we spent more time thinking about the networks that students are building as they go through their schooling years? What are the tools and technologies that they use and how are they using them? One of many connections in this network will likely be one or more teachers. It will also include classmates, family members, community members, and others who whom they learn and interact in the physical world. As it expands, it will also include people far beyond the walls of the home, school and community.
What if we made the building of such a network a central part of the curriculum, inviting students to keep a log or journal of their growing network, and how this network is empowering them to learn, how it is expanding their knowledge and perspective? How are they building a meaningful network? This would genuinely turn schools into places of fishing lessons. Students can interview people around the world, tutor and be tutored, take part in formal and informal learning communities, take part in Twitter chats and Hangouts, learn from and engage in the blogosphere, experience the power of working on a meaningful project in a distributed/virtual team, participate in a massive open online course (or design and teach one), share resources through social bookmarking and other technologies, host and take part in webinars, and build new online and blended learning communities around topics of personal value, need, and interest.
Over time, the students may not only build a personal learning network, but also venture into starting their own personal teaching networks, being agents of change and positive influence in the digital world and beyond.
Practical First Steps
Does this interest you? If so, here are a few simple ways to get started.
1) Introduce students to the idea of a personal learning network and have them create a map of that network using their favorite mind mapping tool. If you have one, share your PLN as an example. Be sure to spend time on the “why” of a PLN. Then invite students to add to and refine this network over the year.
2) Set aside time for PLN Show and Tell – This is simply a time where students display the visual of their network to others, explaining how they use it and how it helps them. On occasion, have students explain what is new in their network, how it was added and how it helps them. This provides a wonderful opportunity for peer-to-peer learning.
3) Create simple challenges where learners find a problem, try to solve it and periodically report back to the group. They will build and leverage their network to solve the problem. Along the way, they will not only find potential solutions, but they will experience the power of connected learning.
4) If you are working with younger students, consider building a class PLN, where you map it out on the wall, and you collectively add to it throughout the year through Skype sessions, Google Hangouts and other connections with people and groups around the world. When you face a new challenge as a class, ask the students, “Is there anything in our PLN that could help us with this? Do we need to expend or expand our PLN in some way?”
5) Revisit the chart above that contrasts teacher-directed and self-directed learning. Find places in your course(s) where you can edge one or more activities a bit closer to the self-directed learning side of things. Invite students to use their personal learning networks to find and achieve learning goals.
These are enough to get you started. As you have interest, try one or more of them and let me know how they work? Also, feel free to add more suggestions in the comment area.
If you are interested, below is a recording of the full session.
There is a growing possibility that the institutional use of MOOCs will reach the mainstream on the high school level before the college campus. News about Massive Open Online Courses continues to make the headlines as groups experiment with different uses and serving distinct audiences. Among these experiments is a growing interest in using open online courses to serve middle and high school students. Here are ten such uses.
1) College Readiness - In early 2013, news spread about the University of Wisconsin Lacrosse creating an open online course to help pre-college students prepare for the challenge of a college-level math course. The first goal listed for the College Readiness Math MOOC is to help high school students, “assess their current readiness to pursue math courses at the post secondary level.” A similar effort is in place at Boward College’s Skills Academy, a grant-funded pilot to offer college readiness courses in reading, writing and math. There are dozens of these college readiness MOOCs available to high school students, and we can expect to see more of them. Not only do they meet a real need but they serve as way for Universities to address retention issues by helping students better prepare for the challenges of college coursework.
2) MOOC as a the Foundation for High School Blended Learning Courses – I wrote about this quite some time ago when Amazing Grace Christian School in Seattle started using college-level MOOCs as part of their middle school STEM programming, mixing the MOOC content with face-to-face activities. This trend is expanding quickly, especially in informal ways, with individual high school teachers having groups of students sign up together for a MOOC as a resource or supplement to what they are doing in class. In many cases, the teacher is still meeting with students each day or several times a week, using the class time to offer individual and small group help, engaging in supplemental discussions, or building upon what was taught in the MOOC, or adding new concepts and activities.
3) AP Preparation MOOCs – Consider the 1-year free trial through AmplifyMOOC, where students take a MOOC that prepares them to take the computer science AP course. In addition, they designing a model where high schools can sign on and get more resources to supplement the online learning with some face-to-face support.
4) Career Exploration – Consider this MOOC from Brown University that ran on Exploring Engineering. It was a short MOOC designed to give high school student a sense of what possibilities exist for careers in engineering-related fields. MOOCs offer high school students with a chance to experiment with and explore potential careers in any number of specialized areas that are typically not examined on the high school level.
5) High School Credit – More high schools are experimenting with offering students the chance to earn high school credit in courses that are not offered in a traditional format. In this article, Nancy Jackson reports of a pilot at Andover Public Schools that allowed a small group of high school students to take select courses through EdX for high school credit (but no letter grade).
6) Self-blended Learning – Even as high school teachers and administrators are exploring the possibility of using MOOCs, more students are doing so on their own. These self-motivated students are learning about the power of using MOOCs to learn something that interests them, even if it is not offered by their local high school. At the same time, there is growing use of MOOCs among homeschoolers and unschoolers. Some high school students have also discovered that they can take a MOOC version of a high school course that they are taking and using the MOOC as a sort of study or support group for the traditional course.
7) Differentiated Instruction and Meeting Needs of Individual Learners – Consider this story about a boy with autism who took two MOOCs through the University of Edinburgh. It is an interesting perspective on a role that MOOCs can play to help increase access and opportunity for different types of learners.
8) Bolstering the College Resume & Application – The author of this article suggest that students can take and complete MOOCs (especially those with certificates of completion) as a way to demonstrate one’s commitment and ability to meet college expectations for a course. I’m not sure if this sways many admissions teams, but it does allow high school students to get a closer sense of what level of work might be expected in a college course. Of course, not all MOOCs are designed to mimic the challenge of a college-level course, but there are plenty that do. We have examples like this student from Mongolia who did well in a MIT electronics MOOC and was later admitted into the school. How about this article that discusses the potential benefits of taking a MOOC as part of one’s college application, or this one about how MOOCs are helping top Universities identify global talent?
9) Shared Courses Across High Schools – I’m seeing growing conversation and interest among high schools and high school teachers about co-developing MOOCs or smaller open courses to have a shared learning experience for students in high schools around the world. This allows teachers to collaborate around common courses/topics, and students get to experience connected learning and a more diverse student body. Imagine ten high school teachers co-creating a world history course, with each taking responsibility for a different unit, or perhaps they co-create each unit, meeting weekly in a Google Hangout to plan and prepare the blended or entirely online learning experiences for their students. Everything is in place for this to happen with minimal costs.
10) Developing Connected Learning Competencies – Other high schools or individual high school age people recognize the rapid change taking place in contemporary education, namely that education today is larger than schooling. Learning to learn in an increasingly connected and digital world is a 21st century skill, and MOOCs (especially the more connectivist ones) are one of many excellent ways to experience and develop such competencies. As I participated in MOOCs, I’m coming across a growing number of teenagers who are taking the courses because they want to learn and connect with others. It is not for high school credit, to get into collect, or to remediate. It is to learn. In doing so they are also learning any number of valuable skills, even building their own personal learning networks.
While most of the media attention about MOOCs focuses upon the impact on college, younger populations are also benefitting. Expect to see more middle and high school MOOCs, creative uses of MOOCs as parts of the formal curriculum in middle and high schools, and a growing number of teenagers joining in the massive open online communities (and courses).
In fact, you can expect to see me offering a MOOC for this audience in the next year.
The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education web site has a series of essays that serve as a critique of contemporary online learning. One of the documents from October, 2013 focuses upon claims that online learning provides increased access to higher education. The author(s) correctly point out that many of us advocate for the benefit of online learning because it provides increased access to students. In response to that, the authors note that online learning does not serve those who don’t have computers or Internet access. They further argue that online learning lacks the support services needed for many disadvantaged students to be successful, arguing that online learning us a sub-par education. They end by pointing out that this growth in online learning risks creating a two-tier system in higher education, with the rich getting the traditional college experience and the disadvantaged left with MOOCs.
There are valid points in the essay, but they do not explain away the fact that online learning does indeed increase access to quality higher education. It is true that people without computers and Internet access will have a hard time participating in an online course. It is also true that many online learning environments do not have the robust support services (although some do, providing dedicated people to work individually with students who need help). However, in response, I offer ten comments:
Flexibility is Access
Few face-to-face higher education institutions allow single parents working long hours to take classes from 8:00 PM – 11:00 PM each night. And yet, online courses make that possible. Why not make face-to-face courses more flexible? The statistics seem to indicate the the largest growth in undergraduate education will come from post-traditional students (older than the traditional 18-22 residential college student). This calls for new models, whether it be a face-to-face or online program.
Many face-to-face institutions have robust support services for students who can adjust the rest of their life schedule to attend day-time courses and meetings with advisors or tutors, but those same schools often lack such such services during late evenings and nights when some students are available.
The Digital Divide
The digital divide is mentioned in the essay, and the author(s) suggest that it is mainly about not having access to the technology. The digital divide is also about not having the digital literacies necessary to use the technology that is available to them. To lack such literacies puts one at a significant disadvantage in the workplace, not to mention public life in general. There is ample evidence to show that immersive experiences in digital environments can help to bridge this divide. While initial training and appropriate scaffolding of learning experiences are needed for students with limited technological skills, online and blended learning can ultimately help people develop the competence and confidence needed to function in digital age work and life.
Online learning helps participants to cultivate the skill of connected learning and discovering the power of building a personal learning network. This is a significant affordance for life and work in the digital age.
No Modality Works for Every Student
The paper minimizes the 2010 US DOE meta-analysis indicating the academic benefits of online learning, noting that the most disadvantaged students do better in face-to-face courses than online courses. That is a good and important point, but it does not argue against the idea that online learning increases access and opportunity to other learners.
Design & Teaching Quality Matters
As with most of these essays (as well as studies that show the benefits of online learning), the author(s) seem to ignore the fact that online learning is not one thing. There are many types of online learning. The design of a course and the character, skill and commitment of the instructor has a large impact on the quality of the learning experience. This is true for face-to-face and online. It seems like a good time for our conversations and studies about these topics to start taking this critical fact into consideration.
Increased Access Will Likely Mean Decreased Retention
The author(s) note that studies showing much higher drop-out rates in online courses. This is a good point that needs more discussion and attention. There are ways to design courses and programs to address this current limitation in many online programs and courses, not to mention the provision of good training for instructors and providing support personnel to help with this. However, when we have increased access to higher education, we often see contexts where students drop out more often. Consider the retention rate comparison between Harvard and a typical community college. Students coming into college with stronger academic skills, supportive families and communities, and strong preparation for higher education are going to persist better in both online and face-to-face courses. Nonetheless, even when accounting for such factors, students do still tend to drop out of online courses and programs more often.
More Learner Analysis, Please
The author(s) express the need to take into account the distinct needs of specific populations of learners. For example, they referenced a study indicating that Latino students benefitted from learning contexts with strong social presence and student-instructor interaction. Now these are important insights. We need more of this to inform our design considerations for all learning contexts, both face-to-face and online. One of the first steps in great instructional design is to conduct a learner analysis, which considers many demographic issues as well as learner’s prior knowledge, level of confidence, and much more. However, I suspect that this does not go far enough. What if we had more systems to take into account the individual differences of each learner? This approach does not inform many course designs and academic plans in online or face-to-face courses right now.
One Style Does Not Fit All: More Options, Please
There seems to be an argument that online learning must meet the needs of all the disadvantaged student populations mentioned in the essay, and yet we don’t hold face-to-face institutions to the same standard. If you reads this blog, then you know that I am consistently and persistently an advocate of choice when it comes to learners of all ages and backgrounds. Online learning gives people more options. It does not do so at the expense of other options.
We Already Have a Two-Tier System
Near the end of the executive summary, the author(s) write, “We risk creating a system in which the rich on-campus college experience is reserved for the elite while we herd first-generation, low-income students into massive online courses. And we seem prepared to do this even though the value of these courses is questioned by many of the faculty who teach them, by college administrators, and by employers.” We already have a higher education system in which the elite go to a certain type of school and the rest of go to what they often consider “lesser” institutions. One could have several degrees from state schools and community colleges and, as a result, have the resume put at the bottom of the pile (if not placed in the trash) when applying for certain jobs. If we want to address this issue, then why not redesign a system that focuses more upon a person’s accomplishments, skills, knowledge and ability whether they attended Harvard or The University of Phoenix online?