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One of the ‘big things’ in schools these days seems to be the increasing expansion of e-learning. I’ve written previously on one school’s decisionto require all its new students to have iPads, or similar tablet-style computers. At the time I worried about whether, in the rush to embrace new technology, the question of whether its use would enhance student learning was being left behind. And a friend of mine who’s a secondary teacher recently said something similar: these technologies can be tools for learning but do not & should not replace the need for linking our teaching to a student-inquiry-based experiential and cognitive-conflict-based learning (which requires a lot of forethought & planning from teachers!).

That concern resurfaced yesterday as I was reading the NZ Herald‘ on-line edition (on my iPad, lol), & found one story citing a couple of US reports suggesting that perhaps e-learning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The first of the Herald‘s references was to this report at Education News Colorado, which examines the performance of students who are taught entirely on-line (for a range of reasons, that could include having dropped out of “regular” schooling, living in an extremely isolated area, or for philosophical reasons. At this point I need to note that the news report is based on an analysis of on-line school data, & so far doesn’t appear to have been published in the science education literature. (However, the Colorado Department of Education annual report, from which the data are drawn, can be found here.) Nonetheless, the analysis does appear to highlight some rather worrying trends:

Online students are losing ground. Students who transfer to online programs from brick-and-mortar schools posted lower scores on annual state reading exams after entering their virtual classrooms.

Academic performance declined after students enrolled in online programs. Students who stayed in online programs long enough to take two years worth of state reading exams actually saw their test results decline over time.

Wide gaps persist. Double-digit gaps in achievement on state exams between online students and their peers in traditional schools persist in nearly every grade and subject — and they’re widest among more affluent students.

Now, one reason put forward by education officials for the apparently wide differences in results was that on-line education was pretty much an option of last resort, & certainly at least one Colorado virtual school does appear to target at-risk students who may well be behind on many educational indicators. However:

The analysis of state data shows, however, that most online school students do not appear to be at-risk students. Only about 120 students of the more than 10,000 entering online programs last year were identified as previous dropouts returning to school, and only 290 entered online schools after spending the prior year in an alternative school for troubled youth.

The obvious question is, why? Because there does appear to be something going on. And it’s relevant to NZ even though fully on-line teaching is a long way from the use of iPads & their like in a bricks-&-mortar classroom: we’re still looking at two stages on a continuum here.

Part of it could be that kids are not really as tech-savvy as we’d like to think. Putting them in front of a desktop computer, or giving access to things like tablets, doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily use the technology to its best advantage. They may well need to learn that skill. And those using the technology to teach also need to think about how well it fits their learning objectives – is it there because it’s “there”, or because it enhances learning in some way?

Coming back to the full-blown exclusively on-line learning thing: there are also issues of community & pedagogy. In a real (as opposed to virtual) school, students are part of an actual community that includes both their peers & their teachers, & which can extend into the community outside of school. It can be rather isolating to be a distance student, & not be a part of that (this was certainly my experience when I was studying extramurally for my teaching qualification). And maybe that can have an effect on learning.

Which is where the pedagogy comes in. Certainly from a university perspective,we haven’t always been terribly successful at moving from the face-to-face to the on-line teaching environment. However, technologies like vide0-conferencing, skype, moodle & panopto can help to give some sense of belonging to a learning community – as can tailoring teaching materials to this alternative means of teaching & learning, instead of simply uploading everything in the format that’s used in ‘normal’ classes. Are some of the students in the Colorado study missing out on that sense of community?

And the Herald‘s second reference? It was to this story (from September 2011) in the New York Times, which carried out what looks like a fairly extensive investigation on the use of technology in schools, before concluding that

schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

Now, that’s talking about the current status quo in parts of the US. New Zealand’s a long way back from what the NYT is describing, both in the extent of our technology roll-out & in the amount of money we have available for it. And the research into the effectiveness of on-line teaching & learning is certainly being done (here,here, and here, for example). (There’s also an interesting review of ‘virtual schools’ available here, which uses New Zealand as one of its examples.)

But still: technology, in education as elsewhere, is a useful tool, but not necessarily a panacea for all ills.