Category: Personal Technologies

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.

Good Advice for School Technology Leaders

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In the May 21 issue of Forbes, the article “Thrifty Does It,” describes how Christian Gheorghe Hates started a billion dollar company with a shoestring budget.  School leaders tell their communities that they must do more with less.

Hates’ strategies show how he cut costs nearly 90% while he was able to deliver quality technical services.  Here’s what he did:

  • Replaced server purchases with leased server space in the cloud.
  • Replaced licensed email products with Gmail.
  • Replaced productivity software with google docs.
  • Replaced database software with databases purchased in the cloud.
  • Replaced telco services with VOIP services for phones.
  • Replaced internal file sharing hardware with
  • Replaced system testing software with open source.

While school technology departments may not be considering using alternative services and may be against specific brand names that Hates uses, he is successful at dumping expensive licensing and using free or inexpensive services to run the technical services of his company.  There’s a lesson here for school technology leaders.

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:

Normal is Revolutionary


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 “What’s revolutionary for adults is normal for kids,” stated Jaime Casap of Google to technology leaders at a meeting of the Illinois Chief Technology Officers today.  Casap implored school leaders to build great teachers, appeal to students’ motivations, focus on the basics, and prepare students for more education after high school, although not necessarily a four year college.

While many adults look for printed documents to learn new ideas, children look for YouTube videos for instruction and feedback on their skill development, Casap argued.  Times have changed:  revolution to normal.

Casap weaved stories from his life into his presentation about how education changed his opportunities.  He made his case for developing important skills like communication, collaboration, and critical thinking, among others that cannot be assessed easily.  Even with these opportunities he is concerned that the digital divide is growing larger.  While cell phones have allowed more people to have Internet access, wired broadband is the true future of rich media digital learning.  Broadband is lacking in homes of low-income families.  It is hard to fill out a job application or write a paper on a smart phone.

Casap encouraged technology leaders to mesh technology tools with classroom learning for learning purposes.  Further he stated that ” We should stop memorizing.  This allows us to free our minds for other things.”

Standing at the edge of this revolution, children are eager to address their normal.

The Illinois Chief Technology, NFP is a non-profit corporation that provides professional development for K-12 technology leaders in Illinois.

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.

The Deregulation of Education: From Bubbles to Clicks


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We need leaders who can work with the education community and the “education reformers, proponents of ” the status quo” and the “change agents.” Finances, changing demographics, and performance measures are putting pressure on the current system. We need change, but is it “market-driven” change? Does market-driven change focus on students and their interests or is focus on profits? Does market-driven change focus on creating a market through universal standardization or relationships with students?

The press to “deregulate,” or unbundle education in the current reform language, is wild and wide open. In a recent working paper, Creating Healthy Policy for Digital Learning, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute opens the throttle for the deregulation of education.

Again, I offer that I am a proponent of all kinds of options of learning for students. Some students excel in classrooms, some do not. Some schools are blue-ribbon, but others are broken, in chaos and lawless. Students who do not learn at the rate of the pace of the dictated curriculum can be left behind. Those who can work faster are bored. Virtual schooling and digital learning allow students to take classes not available locally. I will further write that I am now a former school administrator, technology director, and e-learning director in a large suburban school district. I have seen great leadership. I have seen great collaboration. I have seen adults working on behalf of students. Yet, I know that within the constraints of state laws, federal laws, union contracts, time and money, every student is not fully served. There’s just not enough resources to serve every student. While schools address the regulatory constraints of their reality, a small but growing group, harps at change through the market. We need leaders who can press through this, pragmatists who pull the partisans together for the benefit of kids.

Virtual classes can allow students to progress at their own rates. In a virtual setting, I have seen high-performing middle school students cross math sequences by completing a year of mathematics in six weeks. In their next course, they do as well as students who took a year to learn the prerequisite material. I have also seen students and had private conversations with school personnel about students unsuccessfully recovering credits online. Further, I worked in a program where over 90% of the students recorded “A,” “B,” or “C” in their online courses. Online learning is not for everybody. Even the blended models offer stiff challenges to underperforming students.

The deep thread of the Fordam paper is to make a market out of education through the Common Core. While finding flaws in the separate state assessments under No Child Left Behind, the paper proclaims success in uniform Common Core assessments through electronic learning, moving assessments from bubbles to clicks. While the paper encourages the use of growth models, the core issue is the deregulation of education so that it can be turned into a nationwide market.

The paper is published under the umbrella of three issues:

  • Input and process regulation
  • Outcome-based accountability
  • Market-based quality control

In the first point is criticism of teacher certification. Clearly the paper doesn’t like it. So we’ll let anybody fly a plane, operate a nuclear reactor, or argue a court case? No licensing or examinations required. Not everybody can teach; it takes a special heart on a special mission, yet teaching online is different from in a classroom. Some certification requirement factors are nonsense, but prospective teachers must show appropriate skills. Should the Common Core be mandated along with a national Common Core exam, a national certificate may be appropriate.

Second point, the paper supposes that the Common Core is better than individual state standards. This creates the single market for content providers. It is interesting that this is a move toward more standardization using technology, when we educational technologists proclaim that technology allows diversity and personalization. They are certainly not parallel thoughts. Early in the paper, the notion is expressed that [v]irtual school’s greatest power is that it creates the opportunity to reconsider what is feasible. I ask for whom? Students or the market. No where in the paper is the issue of collaboration, communication, or critical thinking addressed — the issues that a global economy require but cannot be tested in a bubble or through a click. In this proposed market-driven purpose, students would not be asked to demonstrate to solve problems, collaborate on issues, and other issues that technology-based learning can facilitate. The deregulation of education is about more standardization of content, not about what students are learning. After all it’s a market and students can be tested with a click.

The third point above is about quality control, market-based quality control. Let’s use JD Power to measure quality or perhaps Yelp? (Sarcasm intended.)

One of the realities is about a basic premise of the paper, [S]tudents in a given building or district may be taking courses (or just sections of courses) from a variety of providers, each with varying approaches to technology, instruction, mastery, and so forth. The marketplace is about commanding it not sharing it: betamax v vhs; iOS v. Android. Look at SIF (Schools Interoperability Framework). This is an attempt to share data across different technology systems, a system not largely adopted in school districts technology departments. Essentially, SIF is a failure because of its non-adoption, an example that the market cannot solve the simplest issue in education — sharing data among systems produced by that market. The global market is full of non-compliance. There’s no marketplace example that learning objects (sections of courses) from different providers will easily fit in the system the paper proposes. Every company has its own proprietary system. Standardize to their system or go elsewhere. Can I take a water pump from a Ford and put it on a Chevy? That’s what this means for learning objects. The parts won’t mesh. Clearly, the providers won’t build their systems and content around open source or sharing it easily. Then it would not be a market.

Further, the traditionalists who insist that school cannot change; that kids can only learn after they are disgorged from the big bricks of cheese and only between bells are delusional. Technology continues to be integrated into schools to continue to do the same old things. Technology integration is a waste of time and money, with few measurable results. The traditionalists march, tweet, and cry that the reformers want to hurt kids and take teachers’ jobs. The reality is that education is one of the last industries that has not been radically changed by technologies and changing requirements of the world. Every time schools want to start a new initiative or receive a mandate, they rearrange the deck chairs of school based on the ancient notion that kids learn at the same rate and that learning must occur at occasions that adults designate. Does it matter if a student can complete the requirements of 3rd grade in 6 months and those of the 5th grade in 18 months? If a student can complete a math requirement in 6 weeks, that should be encouraged and celebrated. The system needs to change to make this happen.

We need leaders who will poke through the rhetoric of the marketplace and the traditionalists to show us how to structure schools differently around what’s learned, not around the required days and hours of school.

We need leaders at the national and state levels who will organize, confront the partisans and take learning to new levels that technology provides with many stakeholders supporting a new system. As I wrote a year ago, we need leaders to take us to new levels and that bubbles and clicks won’t do. Forward is not far enough.

Online Learning is Upside Down

Online Learning Models are Upside Down

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For those who like to listen or read along, the above audio player reads this posting. (5 minutes, 20 seconds)

Online learning models are upside down.  The proponents of online education state that “credit recovery” is one of the reasons to learn online.  This form of learning occurs when a student fails a high school course and is required to either make up the entire course or pass the units/sections/chapters that were failed.  So the student recovers the credit.

The reasons that student may have “failed” the course are wide, but they likely fall into a few categories, such as:

  1. The student has not learned organization skills.  He may be brilliant, but cannot organize himself.
  2. The student cannot self-regulate.  This means that the student cannot force himself to put down the TV remote, the smart-phone, or video game to study.

Some can argue that the student may not have mastered the previous learning to be successful.  Perhaps the student has a low reading proficiency or he cannot compute well.   Perhaps, the student lacks internal motivation.

I propose here that the idea of putting struggling students in online classes is an enormous mistake.

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.

To the point here:  So we put students who may not have the requisite skills, such as reading, in a course that has large amounts of material that must be read, they are disorganized, and they cannot self regulate.  This is a recipe for more poor results.  These students need help with organization, help with skills, and a disciplined environment.

In our online classes, we ask students to provide advice to the next group of students taking our courses.  Our latest published report is available here.  Our students usually advise future students to be organized and not to procrastinate.  In the report cited here, about 90% of the students responded this way.  One student’s response represented the group’s comments:

I would tell future students who are taking this course that they should plan ahead and get as much of the work done as they can early on before the due date. The course is much less stressful if you plan ahead and get things done whenever you have time to get it done. Also, try not to forget about your online class; always write about the due dates in your assignment notebooks and have many reminders. Don’t forget that there are some assignments that take longer than others, so allow time to finish them. It is also much easier to take the test when you are not rushing to finish it at 10 or 11 at night the night the unit is due.

The students are reporting back and supporting Dr. Roblyer’s research.  The success rate of the program, meaning students that score “A,” “B,” or “C” on their final grades, is 90%.  The students get it; they learn quickly what they need to do to be successful online.  The adults would prefer to work with high achievers and push the low achievers someplace else.

Here’s the model of learning I suggest:

  1. High achieving students should be put into online courses.  They can work at their own rates.  In speaking with my teaching colleagues, these students learn in spite of what happens in the classroom.  They are highly organized and they self-regulate.  Further, my teaching colleagues will claim that I am attempting to “skim off” the good students.  It is important to note that all students need quality teachers, whether online or in traditional classrooms.  The interaction is different online.  Teachers take more of a personal tutor or group mentor role.  They are no longer standing and delivering in front of students daily.  They interact with students through video conferencing technologies.  Our teachers report that they know their online students better than they know their face-to-face students.  Online the teachers “require” each student to participate in discussions and other activities where they might be silent in a regular classroom. Online teachers know every student well, not just the ones who want to talk in a traditional classroom.  Quality online teachers are important; teaching online occurs differently.
  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.

There it is.  I welcome your feedback and your comments.