Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Online Learning

My curiosity about online learning started years ago as I searched for computer based courses my kids could take that would, ahem, remove me from the "homeschool teacher" position and put me in the "cheerleader" position. Over the years my kids have taken just about every kind of class online: writing, math, computer science, history. We have been more than pleased with some courses, and bitterly disappointed at some (supposedly "gifted" courses offered by elite universities).

Online courses allowed me to stay sane during my kids' preteen years when they were physiologically incapable of valuing most anything I said. They have introduced my homeschooled kids to adults who are passionate about their field of study, adults who expect them to work hard and learn (yay!), and subject matter that I could never have offered. With the exception of a few stinkers, I can say that online courses have added tons of value to our homeschool experience. At times, they were like a pressure valve in the homeschool mom/teen relationship.

Today, my curiosity about online learning is piqued even more because Hubby just got a job working at an online, accredited university. A reasonably priced university that can deliver an accredited degree has the potential to be an incredible leveling force in our society! The huge expense of a brick and mortar university is just plain out of reach for most people. Yes, there is a growing amount of need based aid offered to college students. But from what I read lately, student loans continue to grow (and default rates are going up). Online college courses definitely make sense from an economic point of view.

Also, the concept of "how school is done" has been turned on it's head by people like Sal Khan of the Khan Academy. He opened my eyes to the idea of using class time for experiential learning, not lectures.  If the course material can be delivered via pre-recorded video/online lectures, class time can be utilized for discussion, experiments, problem solving and more. All kinds of studies have shown that real learning, the kind that sticks long term, takes place when there is an emotion or experience connected with the subject matter. If our goal is real, integrated learning for students, video based lectures, and in-classroom activities seems the way to go.

While I'm pretty gung-ho about online learning, I have questions about its limitations. Reading text, doing exercises and writing online can be a pretty isolated, impersonal experience. It's fine for motivated, do-it-yourselfers who want to achieve. But reluctant or ambivalent students can find the experience dull and lonely. Many of the online courses I've seen lack that spark an engaged teacher can bring to the learning experience in a classroom. Also, when the student only interacts with software (math mostly) it is bo-ring. In general, students can too easily get lost and disengage from the learning process with online learning.

That said, I am still intrigued by the possibilities of successful online learning. My children have been inspired and have learned a LOT from classes in which the teacher was excited, and showed personal interest in each student. The ability to reach students (all over the world!) who have little or no access to quality education is exciting. With the public schools mostly failing, and college expenses rising, I see the online modality as the wave of the future. I am curious about the possibilities.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Great write-up. One feature that might pop-up with online learning are office hours and chat times, specifically to see if students will interact and help each other online. The software and infrastructure of many existing online courses will need to be upgraded for this to happen, or perhaps they'll fade away as online education innovation moves forward.

There is a dark side as well, as the tech industry will do just about anything for personal info, especially that of the of the younger generations.

Unknown said...

Great post it got me thinking !