Online learning is not enough


What is the point of education? Here’s what Seth Godin says in Linchpin:

What They Should Teach in School

Only two things:

  1. Solve interesting problems
  2. Lead

This has become my guide as I continue to examine what I teach and how I teach it.

In The Innovator’s Mindset George Couros says, “If students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them.” In order to prepare our students to excel in the world of the future, we need to cultivate a love of learning.

There is no shortage of teachers, principals, thought leaders, and business people who will tell us that education needs to change.

But how?

There has been a movement towards personalized learning, as of late, in order to make school more relevant to individual students. We have various students who are working at different paces regardless of grade level. Enter online classes.

While I agree that we need to be responsive to students’ needs, and we definitely do not need students to sit through classes learning material that they have already mastered, I have a problem with online classes being our solution to engagement in schools.

We need students to be inspired and empowered, to treat school as an opportunity to grow as a person in every way, to develop and determine interests and skills.

School is an opportunity.

We want kids to leave high school saying, “I’m so glad I had this time to learn and grow.”

Are our students going to leave their online class saying that?

Let’s be honest, offering online classes, in many cases, is taking a problem like school being boring and making it worse.

We’re admitting that we have a problem. You’re bored? Here, do this quickly. Get it out of the way. You already know the material? You’ll be able to get this done in no time. We’re just changing the medium.

Online classes are, generally speaking, boring. I’ve taken many online classes, and I’m sure many of you have as well. We do the work, jump through the hoops, get the credit, and move on. Test me on the information a week later, actually, don’t. I won’t remember. There isn’t even someone there who cares about me. Many times we try to make these classes more personal, but it is difficult. It’s very difficult to form relationships, a key element to a successful classroom, on the internet.

Reach the minimum requirement, get the work done, and move on.

How do we solve interesting problems? How do we teach students to lead? And how is the learning actually personalized? The only personalization comes through the pace at which the student can move through the set material.

There are some places where online learning does make sense, of course. There are many schools who would not have opportunities at their school to explore areas of interest without online classes. There are also some classes that are more suited to online learning than others.

Who are we catering to with online learning? The kids who are bored in school and just want to get done? The advanced students who have to jump through hoops in order to move on? The average student who doesn’t engage in class anyways, so we might as well offer it online?

If we are looking to help the disengaged student, I can’t imagine taking away the possibility of a caring adult engaging with them would help. If we want to challenge the advanced student, doing a curriculum that is based on checking off a list will not inspire them to be great.

If you ask most teachers what made them go into education, I hope we still have the outlook that we did it because we know that teachers have the power to change lives. Not classes. Not videos. Not assignments. Teachers.

While reading Deeper Learning, I found a few deeper learning schools who had thoughts on online learning.

At High Tech High, for instance, Larry Rosenstock rejected a proposal to bring students to campus just one day a week while expecting them to work online from home the other four days, saying he wanted to keep the emphasis on high-quality human relationships.

Rosenstock realizes the power of relationships. Teachers have the power to inspire and motivate. Good teaching is responsive to students and encourages human connection.

I recently came across the Wellington Engagement Index as featured on Don Wettrick’s StartEdUp podcast. In response to schools paying teachers based on standardized test scores, their idea was to offer grants to teachers who are doing things that truly engage students. Here is Rob Brisk’s TEDx talk if you have the time.

Here is what he found that led to student engagement:

  1. Connection
  2. Mobility
  3. Autonomy

Yes, education needs to change in many ways, but incremental changes will not do it. The changes need to be more than a band-aid to the problem.

There are schools like High Tech High who are redesigning what education looks like through engaging projects, mentors who push students, and authentic audiences. This is where we need to go.

How do we define learning? Which learning experiences are going to stick with students and lead to true understanding and mastery? How will students learn deeply in order to carry knowledge forward and apply what they have learned?

We can use technology o create and collaborate, allow teachers to manage learning in new ways, and show the world what we are doing in classrooms. Using technology to amplify our voices and reach others makes publication and finding authentic audiences much easier, allowing students to find their niche. Technology is an important tool that needs to be integrated into what we do in schools, not to take over our schools.

You know the collective face a class makes when you tell them you’re going to be starting a project? There’s a reason for that. It gives students a sense of purpose. It allows for creativity. It shows that we value what our students bring to the world. Our students have creative capacities that are woefully underutilized.

If it is a box to check saying that they have mastered a topic, students will move on and leave that learning behind.

Students need connection to teachers, mobility, and autonomy. We can do this. We can reengage our students and empower them in their learning, but we have to think bigger.

Online learning is not enough.

Solve interesting problems and lead.


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