Two articles are describing the brave new world of technology in education. In the first, former Seattle Councilmember and former Microsoft executive Tina Podlodowski opines in the Crosscut post, Using the Web to Transform Our Colleges
I first found Khan Academy in an effort to summon the last vestiges of my own high school math classes in order to explain linear equations to my eighth grader. Kahn has no out-of-date text books, no fossilized curriculum, no bellicose school board to debate policy, just the core concepts required to thrive academically in a particular topic. Founder Sal Khan’s guiding belief is that “someone who truly understands the core concepts will thrive academically regardless of the curricular context. To take it a step further, someone who experiences the joy and satisfaction of true understanding will never again be satisfied with the superficial type of learning that most students have grown accustomed to.”
Some 1,600 topics and 36,463,750 lessons later, about 1 million students per month use Khan Academy. For free. They don’t just have to fly solo either. There is a “coaching” function that allows teachers to incorporate those lessons into their current classroom environment, or, leave the classroom behind entirely.
Approaches like these raise the possibility, for example, where core concepts and introductory classes in our high school and university systems were all taught online, with student cohort groups meeting at the local java joint for discussion and project work. You could progress as fast as you could learn (and prove) subject mastery.
What does that mean? Less time in a crowded and boring lecture and more time putting what you’ve learned into practice in the real world, getting ready for all those job opportunities the legislature is fond of promoting.
As the former Director of Microsoft University, I always viewed the holy grail of education to be providing access to the best experts on a topic, to as many students as possible, and then letting them create and invent, buoyed by the power of their understanding and mastery. Face it, not every teacher is good one. But technology can be used right now to make sure we can all get access to a great subject expert in a particular topic. Don’t believe me? Check out Kahn Academy.
So my suggestion, in these times of fewer dollars and rising needs for educating our college students, is to couple the basics with the face-to-face coaching of good teachers to engage a much broader range of students. If the centralized educational system Gov. Gregoire is calling for becomes real, and we’re smart about using technologies in revamping our learning delivery system, we can significantly increase the access we can give children and adults throughout the state to a state education system that serves their needs now. That seems a smarter direction than just perpetuating the paradigms of the past.
Ms. Podlowski’s article addresses the hope and the promise of technology use in education.
Laura Herrerra’s New York Times article, In Florida, Virtual Classrooms Without Teachers describes what may actually happen in practice.
MIAMI — On the first day of her senior year at North Miami Beach Senior High School, Naomi Baptiste expected to be greeted by a teacher when she walked into her precalculus class.
“All there were were computers in the class,” said Naomi, who walked into a room of confused students. “We found out that over the summer they signed us up for these courses.”
Naomi is one of over 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools enrolled in a program in which core subjects are taken using computers in a classroom with no teacher. A “facilitator” is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with any technical problems.
These virtual classrooms, called e-learning labs, were put in place last August as a result of Florida’s Class Size Reduction Amendment, passed in 2002. The amendment limits the number of students allowed in classrooms, but not in virtual labs.
While most schools held an orientation about the program, some students and parents said they were not informed of the new class structure. Others said they were not given the option to choose whether they wanted this type of instruction, and they voiced concern over the program’s effectiveness.
The online courses are provided by Florida Virtual School, which has been an option in the state’s public schools. The virtual school has provided online classes for home-schooled and traditional students who want to take extra courses. Students log on to a Web site to gain access to lessons, which consist mostly of text with some graphics, and they can call, e-mail or text online instructors for help.
The 54 participating schools in the Miami-Dade County system’s e-learning lab program integrate the online classes differently. A representative from the district said in an e-mail that the system “provided lab facilitators, training for those facilitators and coordination” between the district schools and the virtual school.
Theresa Sutter, a member of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Miami Beach Senior High School, said she thought her daughter, Kelly, was done with virtual classes after she finished Spanish the previous year at home.
When Kelly said that she had been placed in a virtual lab, Ms. Sutter recalled her “jaws dropped.” Neither of them had been told that Kelly would be in one.
“It’s totally different from what classroom teaching is like, so it’s a completely different animal,” Ms. Sutter said.
Under the state’s class-reduction amendment, high school classrooms cannot surpass a 25-student limit in core subjects, like English or math. Fourth- through eighth-grade classrooms can have no more than 22 students, and prekindergarten through third grade can have no more than 18.
Alix Braun, 15, a sophomore at Miami Beach High, takes Advanced Placement macroeconomics in an e-learning lab with 35 to 40 other students. There are 445 students enrolled in the online courses at her school, and while Alix chose to be placed in the lab, she said most of her lab mates did not.
“None of them want to be there,” Alix said, “and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice.”
School administrators said that they had to find a way to meet class-size limits. Jodi Robins, the assistant principal of curriculum at Miami Beach High, said that even if students struggled in certain subjects, the virtual labs were necessary because “there’s no way to beat the class-size mandate without it.”
In response to parental confusion about virtual classes, the Miami Beach High parent-teacher association created a committee on virtual labs. The panel works with the school toward “getting issues on the table and working proactively,” said Patricia Kaine, the association’s president.
Some teachers are skeptical of how well the program can help students learn.
The Illinois Online Network has a good synopsis of the pros and cons of online education at Strengths and Weaknesses of Online Learning
Strengths of Online Learning
There are many valid reasons why online programs are rapidly becoming a popular form of distance learning in higher education today. The online environment offers unprecedented opportunities for people who would otherwise have limited access to education, as well as a new paradigm for educators in which dynamic courses of the highest quality can be developed. Here is a list of some of the major benefits of online programs:
Any Time or Pace
High Quality Dialog
Level Playing Field
Access to Resources
Weaknesses of Online Learning
While online programs have significant strengths and offer unprecedented accessibility to quality education, there are weaknesses inherent in the use of this medium that can pose potential threats to the success of any online program. These problems fall into six main categories:
The Administration and Faculty
The Online Environment
Technology can be a useful tool and education aid, BUT it is not a cheap way to move the masses through the education system without the guidance and mentoring that a quality human and humane teacher can provide.
Dr. Wilda may be contacted at [email protected]
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