Saturday, November 20, 2010

Virtual School Symposium 2010

This week I attended the Virtual School Symposium in Phoenix, Arizona (VSS 2010). Over 1800 attendees were on hand to learn about and discuss the ways in which online and blended learning (a mix of online and traditional teaching) is changing education. To steal a phrase EdReformer, blended learning actually has potential to be a “killer app” for the current education system. And yes, I get the irony of flying to a conference on online learning.

Two themes emerged for me: Variety and Flexibility.

Schools are employing online learning in a variety of ways, depending on the needs of their students, and the capacity of each district to support them. There are strictly online experiences for kids, or often what is called "Blended Learning", usually a mix of online and face to face ("F2F" if you want to be hip to the lingo). Here are some quick definitions:
  • Strictly online: Programs designed as totally online experiences, and students never set foot in a brick and mortar school. A teacher is often interacting with the student and grading assignments on the other end.
  • Blended by program: Students can choose to take some courses totally online and some courses in a traditional setting.
  • Blended by course: Some courses meet partially with a teachers during the week, and partially online. At Leyden, students in our online credit recovery program meet 5 days per week with Leyden instructors facilitating, but the content is delivered online.
The variations on these programs are limitless. Some schools develop their own programs, some buy programs from outside vendors, some mix both. The Jefferson County,  Colorado school district offers a Virtual Academy: students have the option of taking an online version of every in-seat course they offer. Students can mix and match the options that works best for them. What is important is that each of these types of programs is designed to meet the needs of the students in that district.

At VSS2010, we listened to a panel of students learning in online programs, they all mentioned how much they value the flexibility offered by their online programs. They can learn at their own pace, access their learning materials and teachers when they need them, and pursue other interests. One young lady shows horses across the country and misses weeks of school at a time. By taking courses online, she can stay on track with school while pursuing her passion. It was also interesting to hear many of these these students say that they can learn in an online environment without other students bothering them. One young man brought down the house when he said that he likes online courses because, "Well, I'm a guy and we're not that organized. This helps me keep track of everything."

When the moderator asked these students whether online classes are easier or harder than traditional classes, they all agreed: it's not easier or harder. It's just school. They still have social interactions with other students (and they mentioned that this was important to them), but they are able to manage their time better and study when it fits their schedule. In one session I attended, the presenter mentioned that he could track when students logged on to work on their studies. Not surprisingly, most students were logged on late in the evening, not at 7:30 am for a virtual "1st period". Many Leyden students are able to finish their online courses before the end of the semester and can work on other subjects. During the summer, students in the credit recovery sections had tremendous motivation to finish their courses: once they were done, they were free to enjoy the rest of their summer.

Online learning is certainly not for every student and every situation. Furthermore, the emergence of online learning does not mean teachers will be replaced by platoons of laptop carts. In these models, the teacher's role may look different, but there is always a teacher involved. The adult may be a facilitator, or they may grade and submit feedback electronically, or they may talk to students via Skype.  Regardless, real humans will always be necessary for the learning process.

What do know is that technology is changing the game. We now have opportunities for communication,  collaboration, and delivering content that we have never had before. Once you realize that there are different options for breaking out of traditional time constraints, that learning does not necessarily have to happen from 7:30 to 2:30 from August to June, a world of opportunities emerge. At Leyden we are exploring these options for our students and have already had some great successes. We will continue to adjust our program to meet the needs of our students and give them the flexibility to learn in ways that work best for them.

Here are a couple very informative blog posts from "The Innovative Educator", another great blog to follow.

  1. "Introduction to Online Learning". This post includes a list of common terms common to online learning, and links to resources from The International Association of K12 Online Learning (iNacol).
  2. In addition, The  Innovative Educator also posted a list of 10 reasons students say they prefer online learning. 

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