Although many Advanced Placement courses and grade level courses have been offered through online or distance models since the early 2000’s, Virginia has recently made a push to increase the number of online course providers that it allows to offer courses within the state. This represents a seismic shift in the way that people have conceived of public education. When many people are asked the point of public education or to name some of its benefits, they immediately jump to the following answer: socialization. While thinking of education in this way certainly has it benefits, at least in a 20th century context, to define public education in this manner in a 21st century environment is a dangerous proposition, especially considering the huge increase in virtual work environments, or what was once called telecommuting.
Learning or Socializing
Are we asking students to learn or become social creatures? I think that this is possibly the most prominent debate about the nature of school and how online education can fit into our current perceptions of public education. For the last 200 years, success, at least to some degree, meant learning how to play well with others. While this is still true, we must admit that the nature of play has changed drastically. We now live in a world where a student can make friends and create a following without ever leaving the house. 15 years ago we lived in a world where your physical identity and your virtual identity were two very separate entities, but now that distinction is quickly becoming blurred.
If we are asking students to learn, then online education, done well of course, may be our best option. This would allow students to use the tools that help them learn most effectively while individualizing their education to meet goals that are specific to their future plans. This does, however, eliminate much of the physical interaction that so many people seem to view as a necessity.
Of course being social, or at least being able to work with others to accomplish tasks, is an important skill, and I mean in no way to down play the importance of collaboration, but are the ways that we are asking students to collaborate in school at present really reflective of the ways they will be asked to collaborate as young professionals. I can look at my own experience in school and say that my public education did not prepare me to do the type of work that I am now doing. All of that I had to learn on my own, and judging the skills of many of the college students that I work with, I can say with certainty that Higher Education is only marginally better at preparing students to collaborate and work in the 21st century (I guess were lucky that we have another 88 years to work all this stuff out).
Shifting the Paradigm
It is becoming increasingly clear that there needs to be a shift in the paradigm of how we as an American public conceive of and administer educational experiences to our students. (Please Note: I said educational experiences because there is a huge amount of reciprocity involved in learning; it goes back to the old adage: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.) We need to foster an environment that appreciates inquiry and uses online methods of delivery to complement project based learning experiences.
Imagine for a moment the classroom of the future: each student is at his or her own workstation linked into a learning management system that the teacher has complete access to, and perhaps one student is watching a video, another is reading and article, the third is listening to a song, and the fourth is playing a video game, but all of them are learning the basic principles of photosynthesis. After the teacher verifies that 80% of the students have obtained an 80% mastery of the concepts, the whole class moves outdoors where the teacher asks the students to indentify several potential spots to plant a garden based on the basic needs of plants: nutrient rich soil, access to sunlight, and access to water. After that, well, they would plant some plants to test their hypothesis. This type of learning involves both concepts and application. So often we give students concepts with no opportunity to apply them to their lives. Imagine how connected a student would be to his or her learning when they, after a few weeks or so, could literally see the fruits of their labor.
In a world of high stakes testing and accountability, in addition to the already stretched budgets for technology and teachers, I understand that this is a lofty vision, but nevertheless feel compelled to explore the possibilities of this fully. If we are going to address the achievement gap within our own country, and begin to address the achievement gap that is even now developing between the U.S. and other nations, we are going to have to create more engaging experiences for or students. That may mean meeting them of their level and engaging them how they want to be engaged, which is becoming increasingly digital.
I’m sure that many critics would argue that we would lose some of what makes humans such social creatures, but I would simply reply that technology is nothing more than a tool to enhance social collaboration and learning, even the Greek root of the word teche simply means a way of doing something, a craft, or art (think technique). So if we look at technology at its etymological roots, we get the study of how to do things. Certainly there are dangers involved with staying constantly connected to multimedia (I’m thinking M.T. Anderson’s The Feed here), but part of our responsibility as educators is to teach students how to use technology more effectively. I think that we need to find a comfortable middle ground in education, between conservative and progressive, which can accommodate a cooperative mindset. Nothing has to be either/or, and it could always be both, and those who say that’s an impossible task are thinking in terms of ‘can/cannot’ and not in terms of ‘how.’