Wary of spin, a Grade 11 student goes to the source: his peers.
Last year, 207,096 students in Canada participated in online education. That's more than one out of 25 students. In B.C. the number is growing, though online courses remain limited to a supplemental role in the K-12 public system.
Those advocating online learning say it's a prime way to shift the school system from the 19th century factory model to a more innovative form. As well, it eliminates the cost of textbooks and broadens access for students in more remote areas.
But what kind of student benefits most from online learning? And when is it not a good fit for certain learning styles or goals? I explored these questions with a few of my peers in Grade 11 and here is some of what they had to say.
Freeing up more time for electives
A.N had quite a lot of difficulty with the Grade 10 planning course he took this summer. Not because the nature of the work was analytical or academic, but because the vapid assignments seemed to stretch over all his free time. Yet taking this course made it possible for him during Grade 10 to take two electives, film and drama. As an aspiring filmmaker, cinematographer, and actor, he surely benefitted from the courses.
"I became close with many of the actors in those courses that I would later work with in the one-act performance the school puts on every year, which made the online work worthwhile. As well, there was one budgeting assignment involving debit cards and cheque transferring that proved useful after I picked up a job this summer."
He mentioned to me that online schooling required time management skills, and was best for the entrepreneurial student who isn't challenged in a classroom, yet it gave him the flexibility to have a better learning experience. I mentioned to him my idea that there be a supervisor in the school monitoring the progress of online students, and peer review groups where discussing and studying online curriculum could take place. This would assist in moving online technology from a supplemental role to an integrated role, helping connect online school networking to the greater school community.
A.N. thought that would make a great improvement to the system. He expressed concern that by distancing students from the social and interactive, project-based aspects of school, online learning may cause students to be more indifferent to school in general.
On the more negative side, he mentioned an in-classroom teacher who replaced discussing social studies content and doing group projects with watching YouTube videos throughout the class. He said this instructor would constantly show YouTube videos on different topics, distancing the class from the subject matter, and allow them to slack off. A.N concluded that in moderation those tools can be good, but the curriculum has to change to accept them, and they cannot substitute for nuanced, involved teaching.
N.G can be found in the evenings playing jazz on Commercial Drive, and has been to four different high schools since Grade 9. (That makes a different school every year.) This is because in Grade 8 he failed two courses; needless to say traditional schooling was quite difficult for him. He now has graduated a year early, thanks to the democratic free school he attended in Grade 11, which allowed him to receive the many additional credits he needed through self-paced learning, journaling his extra-curricular work, and online learning. He will be starting at Vancouver Community College's music program this fall, and is elated about it.
Over two summers he took Math 10 and Planning 10, and believes that it is helpful solely for achieving extra credits. He says, "If a student was only being educated through online schooling, they wouldn't really be learning, for learning consists of a personal relationship to a teacher and the curriculum, and online is a bad environment for these types of connections."
When asked about the shift many educators wish to see from the "content-based learning" of the 20th century, to the interdisciplinary, integrated, "process based learning" of the 21st century, he had much to say. In his Grade 9 year at a private school called Island Pacific School on Bowen Island, many innovative learning methods were used. Sites such as Edmodo (a secure social learning network for teachers and students), Ning (a site where one creates their own social network), and MOODLE (an open source, community-based learning tools site) were used to create a customized classroom online where articles, videos and ideas were shared. His class opened up a philosophy network, which N.G called "a discussion forum on steroids," where one could create a profile, send emails, and have discussions on posts, all in the name of philosophy. During the many class outings, the teacher would get four or five students to blog about their experiences.
N.G. also mentioned the SmartBoard, an interactive whiteboard connected to a projector and a computer used for teaching. One is able to create an interactive PowerPoint presentation, which one can write on and change with sensitive pens and record to post online. This sensible tool allows for students to see a repeat of information after the class is over, and interact with the material on their own time. These sell for under a thousand dollars in Canada; every teacher who wants one should have one, says N.G.
"If a shift in teaching methods is to occur, the curriculum, at a fundamental level, must change with it," he says.
He believes that the teaching revolution should not occur online, but should take place outside the classroom with experiential learning, such as field trips, camping trips and outdoors excursions. His view is that "adding all the innovative technological advancements, without changing the philosophy around education, will be as redundant as putting lipstick on a pig."
Bleary eyes and a hungry soul
U.T, an avid hot yoga attendant, dancer and gluten-free vegan took French 12 this summer. She attends a Rudolf Steiner school, which offers a set curriculum of alternative education and pedagogy. She had to take French 12 this summer to be able to do math and chemistry next year, for students at Waldorf must choose between the two.
Although online education is helping her receive the credits she needs to pursue the sciences, she has many gripes with it. She says "coming from a holistic, collaborative and spiritual learning environment makes online education feel sterile and redundant." Also, after looking at the screen for hours on end, she complained that her eyes began to hurt. "I'm not used to that much screen time," she says. "I prefer to learn in different ways, where one isn't stagnating in front of a computer for hours on end."
This disdain for computers is very common at Rudolf Steiner schools, as children don't use computers until high school, and counsel parents to restrict TV watching as it reduces the child's "etheric forces." This serves as an interesting approach, but is very difficult considering the lifestyles of today's kids.
U.T would definitely agree with the Waldorf philosophy they preach that spending time outside, being creative and doing group project would be exponentially more stimulating than completing a government-required course through the Vancouver Learning Network. The VLN is the newly established network for online schooling in Vancouver, which incorporates teaching strategies and methods similar to those in a regular classroom, such as textbooks, study guides and other materials. Assignments are completed and delivered through various communication methods, including mail, email, online classrooms, phone and fax. Many learners participate in online voice and videoconferences with their teacher and use a variety of electronic tools and learning management systems. U.T. says, "that is all fine and dandy, but it probably won't produce results different from the classroom system."
Creating workers or citizens?
I also spoke with Laurie Anderson, PhD, former head of VLN and current executive director at Simon Fraser University's Vancouver campus. He told me "any course or set of learning outcomes can be taught (and learned) in various media, be it a traditional classroom, online, a hybrid combination, or through direct experience." His point is that the student has more options than before, and should customize his or her learning experience to fit his or her needs. This relates well to the conversations I've had with my peers, who seem quite ready to take the initiative to move out of the brick and mortar classrooms and teach themselves.
Anderson also referred to the constant tension existing among three central goals of education: to educate the mind (classic academic curriculum); to socialize (focus on career education, training consumer education, etc... courses that help students make a living); and to help students discover their unique potential. He said that the number two goal (career training) is the current priority of public education -- to prepare students for the world of work. Perhaps that is addressed well by online conventional methodologies. But the other two goals -- academic learning and self-actualization -- should be addressed as well, yet this would require new, innovative approaches to all aspects of the public compulsory education system.