Category Archives: online learning

Starting an Online Program: To Blend or Not to Blend

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Blended Learning:  First, in all of the blended programs, the students learn in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home at least some of the time. Second, the students’ experience online delivery with some control over the time, place, path, and/or pace. (Reference)

In the rush to digital learning, school districts may be willing to grasp at any branch of the digital tree that they hear about from peer districts or at the latest conference.  It is essential to match the type of learning (blended, online) with target student group.

Dr. Margaret Roblyer’s research can help districts determine the type of delivery model.  Her research indicates the characteristics of students in fully online programs:

  • Academic Achievement — Good students are good students regardless of the learning environment.  Online learning does not suddenly make a poor student a high achiever.
  • Organization — Students learning online must be organized.
  • Technology — Technology must be present where they are learning.
  • Self-regulation — Students must be able to put themselves at the place they want to learn and to drop all distractions.

The Innosight Institute published a classification of blended learning programs.  The study largely outline the blended practices in traditional brick and mortar institutions.  The models include direct instruction from teachers, group projects, and computer mediated instruction.  In some cases, students rotate between stations or there is a flexible schedule to pull out students who need extra help or for group activities within the brick and mortar context and traditional school day.  Check the referenced research above for specific details.

Beyond the opportunities outlined by Innosight, schools can consider blending classes rather than constructing new schools.  Students could be scheduled to be in physical attendance only half the time.  A senior year experience could provide a blended environment to prepare students for their next steps in education, the job market, or the military.  It must be noted that districts and states need various policies and enabling legislation to allow students to gain credit for students in partial attendance.  In Illinois, we have legislation that allows students to participate in non-traditional programs and the school district can receive state funding for those students.

Whether to blend or to engage students fully online can be determined by the characteristics of the students. Roblyer’s research provides insight on how to develop various programs, depending on the characteristics of the students.

From this Roblyer’s, here’s how a program can work for schools:

  1. High achieving students should be put into online courses.  They can work at their own rates to be somewhat self-sufficient.
  2. Average students can be successful in hybrid (blended) learning environments, where they get the direct instruction they need, yet they can work on their own when possible.
  3. Low achievers need focused help from teachers in small groups.

Before jumping on the digital bandwagon, schools should step back to look at the target student population and consider the modes of learning where that group can be successful.

Other postings in this series:

Starting an Online Program: The Target Student Group

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School administrators are being bombarded with encouragement to use digital learning in their classrooms.  Neighboring districts may be employing blended learning or fully online learning;  the local leadership feels pressure from its peer districts and its community to do something, anything.

To start a digital learning program, it is essential to look  at the target audience and then decide whether the group can be assisted with a non-traditional learning learning framework.  Will the program focus on ELL students?  In a digital setting students have more time to learn the concepts as well as the language.  Consider graduation gateway courses.  Every state or district has universal requirements, such as civics, health, consumer education, U.S. history, and the like.  Schools have had long discussions on the senior year of high school and how to transition students to the next phase of their lives.  These courses and student groups could be a focus of a digital learning program.

Once the target audience has been determined, it is important to set success criteria, such as grade distribution, demographics of participating students and the like.  Who can be successful in non-traditional courses, such as online and blended models?

Margaret Roblyer has a wide research base in this topic for high school students.  She has identified several characteristics of a successful online learner.

  • Academic Achievement — Good students are good students regardless of the learning environment.  Online learning does not suddenly make a poor student a high achiever.
  • Organization — Students learning online must be organized.
  • Technology — Technology must be present where they are learning.
  • Self-regulation — Students must be able to put themselves at the place they want to learn and to drop all distractions.

Dr. Roblyer has developed a survey that predicts the probability of passing (POP) an online course.  The survey is scored on the elements outlined above and heavily weighs on the academic success component.  If a student scores highly on the organization, technology and self-regulation questions, but has a low gpa, the POP score predicts a marginal success possibility.

Some schools put struggling students, such as those who need to recover credits,  into non-traditional modes.  Roblyer’s research indicates that these students will not succeed in online environments.

Choosing target groups and success factors that can be periodically reported on are essential to the success of the program.

Innovation and Democracy

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Is innovation a democratic process?

Innovate:  to introduce something new; make changes in anything established. (reference)

In Disrupting Class, author Clayton Christen informs school boards that introducing digital learning into schools may be hampered by purposeful democratic processes that are part of schools’ cultures.  Cooperative tools like “financial incentives, negotiations, vision statements, training, performance metrics, and even litigation . . . don’t work most of the time. . . . [L]eaders often waste their credibility, energy, and resources when implementing change.  The efficacy of any tools in eliciting the cooperation needed to march in a new direction depends in two variables:  the extent to which the concerned parties agree on what they want, and the extent of their agreement on how to get it.  We have concluded from examining school through this lens that democracy itself — as practiced in most school boards — is a fundamental barrier that will block implementation of many of the changes [needed for successful digital learning] unless leaders deal with it correctly (p. 227).

Reflect on this question:  When was the last time  innovative emerged from a school committee?  I am referencing issues that really improved (changed) learning for kids?  Never seen it happen in a curriculum committee and certainly never in a “technology committee.”  Legislative mandates force certain changes upon schools.  Innovation in schools does not happen from within the established system.

Real innovation occurs with through a visionary leader who gathers like minded supporters that are committed to helping the vision become reality.  Look at the picture at the top of this posting.  Was the light bulb developed by a committee?

Many of us can name innovators  of goods and services from the past two decades.  Can you name a educational leader who really changed learning in schools in the past two decades?   Not one.  Most are historic figures from the early 20th century.  (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have not innovated education.  They provided “tools” that allow teachers to do the same things electronically.  The delivery, the context, and the result are from the early 20th Century.)

As schools consider new ways to bring digital learning opportunities to their students, they need strong leadership and perhaps undemocratic methods to make this a reality.  Otherwise are kids will remain early 20th Century learners.

Student-Teacher Interaction Essential in Online Courses


(Click the image to see it larger.)

Student-teacher interaction is essential in online courses. Online courses require rich content that includes many modalities for students to choose their learning path, including text, audio, video, kinesthetic and other modes. This is one of the features of online learning that is difficult to produce and separates from traditional classroom learning. Learning in most classrooms is largely auditory with some visual aspects. Once kids know how to read, we largely teach through talking and listening.

The individualized tracks allow students to slow down or speed up their learning. If they want to watch a video to learn the content, they can. If they want to read, they can do that. This freedom is essential because it’s possible.

The above chart shows a triangle where students interact with the content as they would in any course through essential understandings, course goals, the insights they develop.

Teacher student interaction occurs through email. Online discussion boards are excellent ways for teachers to give every student feedback and additional ideas to consider. This is not possible in a traditional classroom, where discussions are dominated by the articulate few. Additionally, online sessions using video conferencing allow teachers to further explore concepts, assess students’ understand, and clear misconceptions — the essence of what teachers do in a traditional classroom.

Further another part of the triangle includes student-to-student interaction. This can occur through group projects, discussion boards, and discussions in video conferencing software, among others.

A strong combination of content, interactions with other students, and active interactions with their online teachers, students in virtual programs (online/blended/etc) can be successful.

Deregulation of Education 3: Show Me The Money

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Wes Freyer recently reported on a digital learning conference in Oklahoma.  In this report he included a video about the money potential in digital learning that is embedded below.  The presenter outlines the money in Pennsylvania Cyber Charter Schools along with the scope of the money involved in digital learning and executive salaries.

Education is already dealing with big money;

  • School Lunch program cost $10.8 billion in FY10 (reference)
  • In Illinois, school transportation costs approached $1 billion in Fy09 (reference)
  • Putting computers in schools have cost about $20 billion during past twenty years (Disrupting Class, 2011, p. 81)
  • Total annual spending on education in U.S. is $800 billion (reference)
The point is that education is already big business.  To vilify the digital learning movement over executive compensation is a red herring.  Nobody is in the education “market” for altruistic motives.  While teachers pledge to help students, they have mortgages, children’s college tuition, and utilities to pay.    Everybody gets paid.
The video ends with a student staring into a computer screen into a darkened room.  Another red herring.  As has been written here before, learning online is not learning alone.  Interactions with other students and teachers are essential for digital learning.
The challenge for educators is that we need to be engaged.  We have been able to block many movements, but this one has the capacity to change schools as we have known them.  It’s more than “integrating” technology into classrooms.  Digital content a new way for students to learn and a new way for teachers to teach.
Other postings about digital learning:

Technology-Rich Classroom is Not Blended Learning

A technology-rich classroom is not a blended classroom, according to Heather Staker, Senior Research Fellow at the Innosight Institute, speaking at a recent professional development session for the DuPage County Regional Office of Education. (A recording and slides from her presentation are available here.)  Ms. Staker states that data continues to support the predictions made by Clayton Christensen in Disrupting Class that 50% of all high school courses will be online by the end of the decade.  She estimates that approximately 3-5 million students are in at least one digital course this year with 10.5 million predicted by 2014.

In the models of disruptive innovation, Dr. Christensen foresees that classes will be disrupted not entire schools and so the issue of blended learning:  Digital content that is available online in combination with students attending school in a brick and mortar setting.

As the slides in the presentation, referenced above, indicate, Ms. Staker states that the types of blended learning are as varied as schools and local contexts.  The power lies in customizing courses for local needs and individual students.

Developmental Education

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At a recent SLATE meeting, Blackboard and K12.com presented a Blackboard-branded program about a service for higher education:  Developmental education.  This is a polished name for remedial courses.  The presenters stated that “60% of all students in higher education need at least one remedial math course.”  Blackboard has a small program that  provides courses (from K12’s Aventa Learning), instructors and supporting services in higher education.  Institutions can use this methodology in conjunction with traditional remedial programs, although the online program supports students with documented challenges, such as family, distance, and time constraints.  The program includes using video conferencing software, student services, and analytics.  The presenters stated that some students can move through multiple paths so that they can enter credit granting courses.  While current enrollment numbers are low, the presenters report high satisfaction with the program.  While I will not publish the costs that were cited in the presentation, the presenters reported that this program could save institutions about 30% of the their expenses in working students through remedial courses.  As this program continues, the proof will show in the long-term completion rates of these students as well as the cost savings.  Further, will these students be successful when they enter subsequent credit-granting courses where the remedial courses were foundational to the credit courses?

Technology is Distraction in Schools

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Ron Packard of K12.com spoke today at an Illinois Policy Institute program today in Chicago.  He thinks technology is a distraction in schools because it in not fully part of the core learning.  A classroom may have a few computers at the back of the room and they become diversions from learning rather than being core parts of the learning.  Further, technology has not produced much efficiency based on the number of adults employed in schools, although he misses the point that new regulations have caused
schools to provide more services.  When every student has a computer along with engaging curriculum and strong assessments, powerful learning can occur, he opines.  Further technology allows students to advance at their own rates because students can spend extra time on subjects.

He started K12 over a dozen years ago when he tried to find high quality math instruction on the Internet to supplement his the first grader’s math instruction.
In the past decade, K12 has grown to about 100,000 students.  He thinks that Chicago is the center of innovation in online learning.  His Chicago Virtual Charter School has about 600 students.  Students attend a school once a week and then learn online at home, with the help of certified teachers who track students’ achievement levels and then provide instructional assistance with video classroom software.
He observes that kids are asked to power down in schools.  When kids have access to powerful technologies at home, school does not look exciting.
Further, he forecasts that within a few years high school elective courses will be offered online.  He thinks this will help eliminate the maximum number of electives a student can take.  He thinks students will have more choice in courses and more opportunities at lower costs.
His catch words are:  Educational liberty, transformation, and open enrollment (across districts).

Packard claims he is not political and his words are the most neutral I’ve heard from the online providers and digital learning proponents. He did not talk about reforming schools, taking on teachers’ unions, or battling special interests, although he recognizes the political forces as he did not realize he would spend most of his work time tacking through the political headwinds.

He cited multiple successes in his schools that I will look at further and outline here in another posting.

His leadoff point was stated well.

Online learning: Shouldn’t We Do better?

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With online learning, shouldn’t we do better?  Shouldn’t we have higher expectations?  Shouldn’t we stop telling partial truths?  Partial truths don’t help online learning initiatives.  All learning through technology is not all powerful.

When I was in elementary school, the teachers used controlled reading projectors.  These contraptions used modified film strip projectors to display the text of stories.  The projectors fed the story’s text through the film gate while a single line was revealed from left to right.  The speed of the text was regulated from 15 lines per minute to 120 lines per minute.  Supposedly, the projector was used to help us develop horizontal movement of our eyes to read and to increase our reading speed.  Didn’t work for me.  My eyes sometimes do not track across the page and it helped make me a non-reader for most of my youth.  Technology “solutions” do not always work.

When I was in junior high, my oldest brother was in the U.S. Navy.  While he spent most of his time stateside, he was involved with the Navy’s target drones.  The Navy had small unmanned airplanes that they launched in the desert near Twenty Nine Palms, CA.  His crew prepared and launched the target and then another group attempted to hit it with it with a missile.  But I digress.

After Basic Training, he prepared for his work with targets in Memphis, TN.  He learned about them through programmed instruction.  He left his instructional materials at home when he went to his next duty station.

During those youthful days, I was fascinated with any vehicle propelled by propeller, jet or rocket engine.  Through the programmed instruction books he left at home, I learned about radial reciprocating engines and aircraft marshalling.  It was self-paced and interesting for me.  No teacher demanding that I put away the books so they could move on to the next subject.

My point is that programmed instruction has been used for many years.  It allows students to progress at their own rates. From theory developed by B.F. Skinner, it evolved into an instructional method.  With computers, it has been called mediated instruction or computer aided instruction.  We know that this is a highly effective methodology, but it has largely fallen from favor.  It is based on mastery learning, yet is not a favored instructional strategy.

There are readers who will claim that this time it’s different.  Yes, first there needs to be a sense of urgency. (See the national number about physics teachers below.)  Financially, the current educational system cannot sustain itself.  Yes, technology gives us a new dimension of student tracking not available before.  Technology allows us to add many different forms of exciting media.  However, the learning system is not new — programmed instruction, CAI, mediated instruction, yet it is rebranded as digital, blended or online.  There is no new methodology, and it is limited; it does not accent or support other skills students need to be successful in their world.

So I ask the question, “Are the blended learning models proposed in many circles a rebirth of programmed instruction?”  Earlier this week I attended a presentation by Bob Wise that was sponsored by the Illinois Policy Institute and the Peoria (IL) Chamber of Commerce.  Gov. Wise gave his standard presentation about the need for digital learning.  (I’ve heard this in other venues.  The video of the presentation will be added here when it is available from IPI.)  His reasons for favoring digital learning are around shrinking state budgets,  loss of experienced teachers and the need for an educated workforce.  He proposes that digital learning allows for comprehensive data systems that can track student learning, converting bubbles to clicks — as I have written about before.  The essence of Gov Wise’s thesis is that for our country to compete in a global market we need a highly educated workforce.  We need more high school graduates that move into higher education, he postulates.  Yet, where do we teach the skills that industry tells us students need: problem solving skills, ability to collaborate, communication skills, etc.?  These can’t be measured with a bubble or a click.

The online learning proponents must set the bar high as naysayers will continue to cite the latest alleged deficiencies quoted in the popular press (NY Times, AZ Republic).  We need to maintain and professionally enforce quality standards.

Here are three examples in Gov Wise’s presentation that need
sharpened:

  • We need digital learning for students who don’t have qualified teachers, for example, the state of Georgia only has 80 some physics teachers.  I have heard this before.  There’s never been a reference provided when I’ve heard this number cited by various sources.  Here’s some more powerful, documented information:  In 2007, 66.5% of the nation’s students were taught physics by a teacher without certification in the subject (reference).  In 2007, the Georgia’s higher education system produced only 3 physics teachers (reference).  The national number is frightening and a strong reason to provide high quality digital learning for these underserved students.
  • Carpe Diem, a blended learning school in Yuma, Arizona, is cited as having excellent results with low costs, lower than average Arizona costs and lower than national costs.  However, it is average in Yuma County, AZ (reference).  It’s ok to get great results with average expenses.  This should be celebrated, not selectively removed from the presentation.
  • Working with some of the district’s most economically challenged students, Valley High School has dramatically improved its test scores during 5 years.  While Gov Wise praises “longitudinal data systems,” AYP is not longitudinal.  Further the principal did not do this alone.  During five years, many of the students came from a middle/junior high school and that school had to be raising their test scores as well.  This was a multidimensional effort — not just that of one school.  It is a longitudinal effort not an AYP effort that focuses on results on single grades or levels.

I hope that he reads this to strengthen his presentation about the need for high quality learning opportunities for all kids.

Notes From the Virtual School Symposium 2011

The Closing Student Panel from VSS 2011

Over 1,900 conferees assembled in Indianapolis for the Virtual  School Symposium November 9-11, 2011.  My notes from the day follow.  A wiki is available for the event.

On Wednesday, I participated in a day long workshop for participants starting online programs.  Holly Brzycki, John Canuel, David Glick, and Phil Lacey presented about their specialties:  curriculum, leadership, technology, policy, and professional development.

The program started with a panel of teachers from across the country.

 Fostering Quality in Digital Learning.  I wrote a separate review of the session here.  The essence of the presentation was policy development so that market forces can produce new learning platforms.  My thoughts are that the presenters are missing an important factor in their calculations — teacher-student relationships.

Presenters were no-shows at two of the sessions I attended, although audience members rose to lead discussions that were similar to the titles in the program.  This speaks to the interest of the participants, but the program committee, of which I am a member, needs to do a better job ensuring that speakers are in attendance.

In the lunchtime presentation by Steve Midgley (US Dept of Education), he reviewed technology advances with Google, Youtube, and others.  Not much new here.

Mickey Revenaugh from Connections Academy lead a panel discussion about course quality.  This was a different discussion from the policy issues discussed earlier in the day.  While vendors were on the panel, the discussion was about how to develop quality courses.  The participants did not feel “sold.”  The design process includes visual literacy concepts and prototyping new courses sections with students.  Teachers’ loads are determine by the amount of grading effort by the teacher and teacher-student interaction.  Assessments, standards, and such were discussed.  Some measures of quality include end of course exams, mastery learning, and growth models.  Interestingly, one vendor collects student feedback on each lesson with a 5 star rating system and a text box for specific comments.  Ratings and comments are used to make changes in content.

On the evening of the first day of VSS, the planners  provided an exceptional evening of  food and entertainment at the Indiana Roof Ballroom.  Vendors had evening receptions, making it a parade of events for the evening.

On Friday morning, Michael Horn and Paul Peterson had a panel discussion about a world class education.  Peterson quoted PISA scores showing the apparent dismal scores of American students, yet later he stated that he was not an assessment expert.  If you’re unfamiliar with the possible problems with PISA, start here.  Peterson described the idea of co-production — how unpaid labor increases productivity.  They include:

  • Big box stores where customers troll the aisles with carts, moving goods from the stores to their cars.
  • Banks were ATMs serve customers and banks use online statements.

In schools, Peterson stated, students are the most important part of unpaid labor.  We must look for student engagement in courses to get them to learn what they should know.

Like others, including Horn, Peterson stated that we are at the beginning of digital learning and much possible as technology improves, such fully interactive and 3D.

He stated that competition between blended learning and online learning will improve options for students.

Peterson closed with three areas to observe success:

  1. The system must be transparent with standards, curricula.
  2. Student accountability is essential.  The learning must be verified.
  3. The system must be flexible.
  4. There must be a policy framework for competition.

Next I attended a panel discussion led by former West Virgina Governor Bob Wise.  Participants gave specific information about success in their programs.  Some general ideas from the presenters:

  1. Blended learning ensures success for many types of students.
  2. Success in blended learning depends on quality teachers
  3. Professional development is important.
  4. Social networking will become important.

Next I attended a session where Robyn Bagley described the process how Utah Senate Bill 65 was passed to encourage digital learning in that state.  She described a new model for Utah:

  • Funding follows the student.
  • Funding based on successful completion of the course.
  • Students customize their education with blended learning
  • Students provide courses and provider
  • Subject matter mastery replaces seat time
  • Student have access to the best courses and best teachers.

She outlined how she was able to shepard the bill through the Utah legislature.  Robyn was passionate and articulate about the topic.  She has a winning attitude.

My final breakout presentation was about how Hall County, GA is implementing digital learning in its schools.  The program includes curriculum development and sharing, infrastructure design, assessments, and professional development.

The day and conference concluded with a student panel presentation.  Students explained how and why they were in online and blended learning programs.  They talked about their challenges — some of the content is hard to learn — to their triumphs — I can take my school with me when I travel.

It was a great closing to this conference.

The next VSS is  October 21-24, 2012 in New Orleans.