Today during lunch I read an article from another blogger, Will Richardson, describing a move in public education in many states towards literally replacing some teachers with completely online classes. The author of the blog was responding to another article originally posted in the Wall Street Journal. I highly recommend reading both of those articles before continuing...
I am a little conflicted in my opinion about what both articles had to say. Will Richardson is right about one thing: the Wall Street Journal has a vested interest in promoting completely online schools and making them appear more successful and marketable than they might actually be. But I do not agree entirely with his premise that we should shy away from this model entirely because of the possible impact on teachers. Personally, I'm less interested in the impact on teachers. I'm more concerned about the impact on students. If the result of more online teaching and learning is that we need fewer teachers, so be it. If that is good for the students. I am not concerned about saving my own neck from being cut from the public school system. I have found ways to be a teacher outside of the "normal" classroom before, and if necessary, I would do it again, except more intelligently (and more informed) than I did the first time. I like the security that goes with teaching full time in my state, and the decent paycheck, but at the end of the day I am really only concerned with how what I'm doing affects my students. If the unions don't like it...well, they don't like it. I am a member of teacher's unions, because I do not want my district to be able to run all over me whenever they feel like it and I want a collective voice - but I'm not for using that medium to prevent progress that could eventually be great for our kids. It may not be great yet, but just because something isn't wildly successful the first time doesn't mean it is an idea we should throw away. Thomas Edison invented hundreds of light bulbs that did NOT work before he found a version that consistently DID work. It was an idea worth pursuing and perfecting, so he did not let those failures stand in his way. I think the same is true for the role of online learning and the evolving role of teachers in our society. Finding a better way of teaching is worth the time, effort, and probable failures that we will encounter by trying to improve our educational system.
I do think that part of what fuels my opinion here is also that I am personally very fond of online learning. And many of the so-called shortfalls I have found to be simply untrue. Many people speak of the lack of collaboration and community in online courses, and a lack of discussion. The last set of major online courses I took (a little over a year ago) were just the opposite. Sure, we read articles, watched videos, and took quizzes - but most of our assignments were to contribute to message boards with reflections and comments on other people's reflections. Those discussions were deep and worthwhile, provided great opportunities for teamwork, helped to build relationships with others, and involved a great deal of real writing. I found that I was much more insightful in those comments than I might have been in a face to face course, because I had time to think before spouting out a response. I am perfectly outspoken in a classroom setting (even as a student), and I don't have any problems with classroom discussions - I love them. But even for a student like me who thrives in a traditional setting, I found that my comments were simply BETTER just for taking a few more minutes to look over my thoughts before sharing them with my class online. Then I think about someone like my mom, who probably would not speak out nearly as much in a face to face class discussion with 30 other people - but would still have valuable input for the conversation...and I think how nice the online environment is for anyone who is hesitant to speak out in public, or for anyone who really needs just a few more seconds to form their answer but never gets to be heard because people like me are always there speaking first. How nice for the teacher to get to see everyone's responses without chancing leaving any student out. Those reflections and comments were graded by an instructor using a rubric that was published in our course. I have nothing but positive things to say about that experience. Just like in the classroom, what you get out of it depends on a few key things. First, that the lessons and assignments are well designed. Second, that you got out of it what you put into it. And third, that we had opportunities to work together and interact.
So my opinion is certainly colored by my personal experiences. I also like online learning because I am very at ease with computers. I have had a computer for as long as I can remember. I remember having to know little bits of MS-DOS in order to access the floppy discs that allowed me to play my earliest computer games. Many other teachers are simply just not very comfortable with computers yet. Even though I am one of the younger teachers at any campus I have ever taught at, I am also one of the technology mentors at each of my schools. I can think of several teachers who are dear friends of mine who would be terrified of moderating an online course.
On the one hand, I love digital learning. I also think that digital learning is going to come of age whether anyone likes it or not. I also happen to believe that we will always need teachers, that we will not be replaced by computers. I think that our role will change - and I think that our role SHOULD change.
With so much information readily available, knowing how to find information is more important than having everything stored in your head already. As a college professor of mine preached: "It's about PROCESS, teachers, PROCESS!!" I think he said that at least 3 times per class period. Thank you Professor Johnson (University of North Texas, College of Music, String Methods course). He stressed that we must teach our students processes, not facts. Don't get me wrong - there are a number of things which are amazingly useful to know without having to look it up. I'm thankful to know my multiplication tables and to be able to work fractions using nothing but mental math. I'm also thankful to have been made to memorize a few poems and monologues, if for no other reason than to be able to continue appreciating their strength and beauty without having to pull a book from the shelf. I am obviously thankful to have memorized the alphabet and learn to read and write. Memorization and rote learning does have a place in our world.
But why can't a computer program be used to teach curricula? So much of what is currently mandated in education reduces most teachers to little more than robots anyway - it is a leading complaint among my teaching friends in other subject areas which are subjected to state testing. Having those lessons and assignments automated would FREE these teachers from some of the worst of our drudgery work and allow them to fill the remaining time with more creative, real life application lessons and projects. It would also allow those teachers to have more one on one time with students who struggle while allowing the other students to move forward at their own pace.
On the other hand, students not only need the influence of an adult mentor (such as a teacher) - most of them crave that attention and yearn for that mentor relationship in their lives, regardless of background or family situation. We will always need teachers. We cannot abandon the idea of convening with others to collaborate in person altogether. Some things are notoriously difficult to teach at a distance. Playing musical instruments is the example that readily comes to mind for me. I would not be able to teach clarinet in an online course. However, I could pair my lessons with an online curriculum for teaching students how to read music, and even have them record parts of their assigned music so I can hear their progress through the week (and be assured that they are indeed practicing some between lessons). I could then provide feedback midweek and adjust their practicing assignments as needed. Then we would only address their concerns, and mine, at the next lesson...much less wasted time, and much more interaction with my private lesson students. (Well, right now I only have one, as I went back to teaching public school...but I remember having many more a few years ago, and this would have been an awesome system) My point is that while you cannot do away with face to face interaction, you can free things up so that the face to face interaction you have is more meaningful and/or more efficient.
Finally, we no longer live in a world where you have to leave your home to work every day. The workplace is no longer strictly a brick and mortar existence. It makes sense for schools to adapt in this way also. Personally, I like the idea that the WORLD can become my classroom, either as a student or a teacher. I like the idea of being able to move past the four walls of my one room. The world is a huge place, full of wonders - both physical and digital.
We, as teachers, need to be open to the idea that how, when, and where we teach can change - and that this may end up being a very good thing. The classroom is long overdue for an overhaul, and digital learning is a tool that, used with guidance from teachers, can mean great things for teachers and students. We don't need to be running away from this - we need to be thinking about how to harness the power of it for the best possible outcome for our students.
I don't think it is THE solution that I've been digging for in my musings (and the sequel, here), but I do think that digital coursework is part of the puzzle.