The previous post focused on the microcosm of my own classroom, and how I might answer the following questions within my own course:
- “What does empathy look like in an online school?”
- “What does it mean to acknowledge silent voices in an online school?”
- “What can I do to empower student voices, and make them aware of platforms and megaphones they can use to amplify their experiences?”
Now, for online schools to become places where all students have a voice and a platform, to become responsive to their academic needs, and to support their need to create and reshape their identities as learners and as citizens, online schools must change their design.
A Look at the Current Model
The first state-wide online school began in 1999 with the Florida Virtual School. Julie Young, the CEO and President at the time, described its origin story as “nine people sitting around a table” with “a piece of paper that said ‘student’ in the middle” (Learning without Boundaries). “There were no rules and no roadmap for us to follow as we embarked…. The directive was basically ‘Go make it up, and then come back and tell us how to do it.’” The first students were “seventy-seven white male math and science students, which the schools we contacted ‘gave us’ because they figured we couldn’t really do them much danger.” Since then, many states, school districts, and for-profit K-12 online schools have replicated their design model, which emphasizes flexible schedules and content mastery. Now, almost seventeen years later, online student enrollments continue to grow, and more companies are interested in adaptive technology and personalized learning to meet students’ needs. Ms. Young herself has moved since from the state-funded virtual school to launch Global Personalized Learning Academies (GPA) as their CEO (“Julie Young Returns To Online Learning”).
A Need for Change
Last fall, CREDO, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, released their findings on online charter schools. In brief, they’re not doing well. Marc Sternberg and Marc Holley from the Walton Family Foundation reiterated these findings in Education Week on January 26, 2016, stating, “The students in virtual charters learned the equivalent of 180 fewer days in math and 72 fewer days in reading than their peers in traditional charter schools, on average.” These criticisms gloss over many details and differences among states and offer no solutions. Instead, the message is cautionary: “States should examine the current progress of existing online programs before allowing expansion” (73).
When schools do recognize a need to change, what should they change? Educational technologists may suggest increasing adaptive and personalized learning tools, and indeed, that seems to be the direction for-profit online schools are going. Unfortunately, what is lacking is a thorough exploration of what stakeholders need. Instead, we still have a piece of paper with “student” around which companies try to design algorithms to tell the student what to learn and how to learn it. This scenario is even worse if we consider that their model student might have more in common with the “seventy-seven white math and science students” than the population currently in physical schools and online. Who exactly is online education serving? Does the current design and the designs now being drafted meet the needs of the current student population online? According to CREDO, no.
A Design Thinking Approach
To improve online learning, we must forget the hypothetical student and go out and meet real students, families, and local schools to discover their actual needs. Why do they enroll in online education? What do they perceive as its benefits and disadvantages? What needs are they seeking to meet through enrollment?
Course designers should hold focus groups to test new models with diverse student populations to ensure course designs actually work, and they should use rapid prototyping to refine their designs. After seventeen years, online schools don’t need to “go out and make it up.” One might say that to have done so in the first place was irresponsible.
Online schools are growing, and there is a demand to be met, but if schools want to improve, they must not only rely on survey data and completion rates. They must remember empathy. Face to face interviews, focus groups, and networking with local schools will help course designers and policy makers understand how and why the current model is failing some students. From there, schools can follow design thinking to define the problem and ideate.
“How might we…”
- How might we acknowledge students’ individuality, voice, and humanity in an online course?”
- How might we offer more flexibility while providing meaningful learning opportunities?
- How might we personalize learning without turning students into collections of data?
- How might we change our concept of school from“moving students from areas of weakness to strength” to “drawing on the strengths students show up with”?
If we want students to own their learning, then the model can’t be a formulated top-down design. Too many online learning environments are too rigid. Neither teachers nor students are able to restructure a course. Although students may choose any given day of the week to complete their assignments, at the end of the semester, they’ve all read the same texts, completed the same assignments (albeit with some choice within them), and taken the same tests. Feedback is personalized, and teachers do mentor students, but the actual stuff students must study is predetermined.
There are efforts to move in the right direction, but whether these steps are truly student-centered is questionable. More schools promise personalized learning programs that will deliver content and assignments based on student performance within the school’s learning environment. To some extent, this is exciting. However, the agent of personalization is not students’ voices, but rather students’ behaviors (mouse clicks and time spent) will shape their learning experience. This relies too much on a computer’s ability to interpret what students’ behavior says about their internal mental, emotional, social, and intellectual needs.
Instead, courses should be empty vessels wherein students and teachers can identify goals and then map learning together. Learning modules may be added or removed based on performance and preference. Modules can be aligned to state standards to ensure accountability. In the beginning, these could contain a standard set of content, assignments, and assessments. In subsequent iterations, students could be responsible for providing their own content and choosing assignments and assessments aligned to both state standards and their goals.
Another option for online schools is to offer independent studies for each academic area. These independent studies would define the standards that students should master, but students would be able to use the course structure and their online teacher’s mentorship to study a passion. Many students take online course for credit recovery or to make-up a credit they missed during a prolonged school absence or while transferring between schools. The online independent study could represent an opportunity gained rather than one lost.
“How might we create an authentic culture of engaged learners?”
Many of my own troubles with online learning is a lack of student buy-in. From my end, it seems students wait until the last minute to post on the discussion board or to submit assignments. When speaking with my graduate class at GSU, they related their own experiences with discussion boards: the class posted at the last minute, and the discussion board was rarely a place to discuss topics.
LMS analytics help me determine which students are engaged, or at the very least navigating to different pages. This helps when I call students and check up on them. But what if I didn’t have to? Why do students become disengaged? I refuse to believe all students lack time management skills or lack the ability to sit in front of a screen for prolonged periods of time. The solution isn’t to devise new ways of checking on students or monitoring eye movements. Rather the solution is a virtual environment with multiple ways of engaging with the content.
Relying more on open-ended questions in discussion board topics and allowing students to supply content are just two steps. Beyond those, learning objects within the course must also be more open-ended and invite students to analyze and reflect on the content. A brief conversation with a SLA student made me aware of this open-ended interactive about Abraham Lincoln. More learning objects should mirror this design.
School policies and grading scales should also support a culture of learners. Many schools offer synchronous sessions to gather students together in an online meeting space for a live lecture and help, and there should be a requirement for attendance. If not every lecture, then an agreed upon number, and students can schedule in advance which meetings to attend. Grades should also be weighted to emphasize the importance of interaction and engagement. One of the major criticisms of online schools is that students can use the Internet to look up answers too easily. Instead of devising new ways to lock down surfing, assessment questions should take this as a given and ask students to think at higher levels. Instead of answering multiple-choice questions, students should provide analyses.
Also, assessment grades can be de-emphasized, so students are less likely to spend the effort to cheat. Greater weight should be given to authentic assignments, such as contributing content, interacting with peers, and completing a portfolio of work.
“How might we make this a reality?”
The current model of online education relies heavily on adjunct and part-time teachers. These teachers also often teach at a face to face school. This pool of teachers enabled the rapid growth of online schools. For seventeen years, this was probably a good thing. It allowed schools to grow, develop, and improve. Schools are certainly meeting more students’ needs in more areas. However, after seventeen years, it is time for online schools to grow up and enter adulthood. Too often, online courses, students and teachers are viewed as something lesser than their face-to-face counterparts. This needs to change.
First, online schools should move away from their dependence on adjunct and part-time teachers and move toward a trained full-time staff. These teachers should be masters at facilitating courses, course design, and e-learning environments. Teachers whose priority is their virtual class will be able to meet the demands of a more personalized and flexible course.
Second, online schools should work with local schools and school districts offering training for facilitators who can guide students through orientation and also be a face-to-face contact for students and families. The facilitators will know the priorities of the local school and can articulate them to the online teacher, and the online teacher can work with facilitator should a student fall behind. Furthermore, training will raise awareness of online schools within cinder-block walls, so online courses become another legitimate option instead the only option left.
Finally, we must not depend on technology and technology companies to patent new software and algorithms that promise better ways of meeting students’ needs. These are useful tools when trying to understand where students need help, but they must not drive instruction. When building a ladder, I don’t let the hammer tell me how high I should build the steps. Nor should a java script be the only voice guiding instruction. When we give students, their families, and teachers more flexibility, and when we trust them more than we trust the machines they use, we will begin to design a better online school.