Thursday, August 30, 2012

Online Learning - Is Mandating A Wise Choice?

I have been reading lately about several school districts who are mandating that students take some online courses as a requirement for graduation. This article by Michelle R. Davis, Districts Require E-Courses for Graduationtalks about a district mandating that students take one online course before they graduate. Another article by Michelle R. Davis, State and District Measures Require Students to Take Virtual Classes, explores some more districts and states who are requiring online learning for graduation.  The reasons vary but include the desire to get students familiar with online learning that they may experience in a college or work situations, or to cut costs, as online learning is seen as a cheaper alternative, or to provide more options for students.  All great reasons.

The arguments against mandating online learning also vary. I will just list a few here. Access to computers and Internet is an obvious problem, requiring schools or other locations to provide access to computers if students don't have access at home. Getting qualified teachers who know how to teach in an online environment (it is NOT the same as a face-to-face environment) should be another concern, though I worry that is not often taken into consideration. Scalability of courses for a large number of students and designing or finding appropriate online courses are also possible arguments against mandating online learning as part of a graduation requirement.  All things that I hope have been thought about and planned for BEFORE these mandates go into effect, because if not, the failure potential is quite high. This is a nice article by Michael Horn that sums up some of these concerns about mandating online learning: Is Mandating Online Learning Good Policy? 

While I agree with all the concerns about online learning mentioned and have others as well, I am a huge proponent of online learning for students. As a student myself, I could not have completed the last several years of my doctoral program without the online learning opportunities my professors provided and created just for me, since I moved away from the actual location of William & Mary in Virginia to Texas. Online learning is what I have focused on as part of my doctoral studies, and it is a daily part of my work, and it is something I have developed at the 6-12 level as well, so I am a big believer in the power of online learning and the opportunities it provides. However, that said, my concern about the mandating of online learning for students in order to graduate is that online learning IS NOT FOR EVERYONE!

Online learning is a different way of learning. Online learning requires a great deal of independent learning, which requires focus and commitment to meet deadlines, do the online course requirements, and often times work alone. This is not something everyone can do and not something everyone enjoys. Online learning requires an ability to read and communicate in different ways. There are online discussions, the reading of others posts and responding appropriately to these, reading articles online, following links to other types of resources and learning from those, and pulling all these different components together to create a unified learning experience. Not everyone can learn this way and not everyone is able to communicate effectively through writing. Self-motivation and self-discipline are also keys to online success, so students who don't have these are going to really struggle. It requires being more responsible for your own learning and if a student is easily frustrated, online learning may make that worse. There are more reasons, but online learning requires a certain learning style, and mandating online learning for all students in order to graduate could be setting many up for failure.

I think a better approach is to provide online learning as a choice for students, not as a mandate. I read an article by Beau Yarbrough called School Districts Offer Online Alternatives to Traditional Classroom Instruction, that provides a nice example of how online learning can be an option for those who are interested,. Choice means more probability of a successful outcome then when the option is forced upon you. I would love all students to embrace online learning, much as I would love all teachers to embrace online learning, but realistically, I know that is not possible. Online learning is not for everyone and I hope that there are options and alternatives, in those places where online learning is now a mandate, for those students who struggle in an online environment, not due to the content of the course, but due to the nature of the online learning environment itself.

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