What Will Be the Apex of Online Learning?

By Ross Brenneman — February 18, 2014 3 min read
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At Universal Studios, in Orlando, Fla., attendees can go to an event based on “Terminator 2,” the follow-up to the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic. At the beginning, you see a bunch of commercials for the fake Cyberdyne Systems, the company behind the artificial intelligence system (Skynet) featured in the movie.

At one point, one of these commercials envisions children being able to learn anywhere in the world from the same teacher. That’s one of the many ideas that seemed not necessarily absurd but not entirely likely back in 1991. (I’m pretty sure Universal hasn’t changed the experience since installation.) It’s less absurd, though, as more and more teachers and students experience online instruction options.

OK, one teacher for every student may still seem like a stretch. But it does seem like we may be reaching a tipping point in regard to online learning.

It’s no secret that e-learning is plenty popular already, but in the past week, with half of the country reenacting the Ice Age and many teachers instructing remotely, we heard a lot about it. In Ohio, for instance, schools can substitute up to three “e-learning days” for snow days, so plenty of children didn’t experience the kind of free time they might have expected from freezing temperatures.

Teachers and districts turn to e-learning for reasons beyond weather, too. As we noted in January, Kodiak Island Borough School District, in Alaska, utilizes telepresence machines to allow teachers to instruct remotely, rather than traverse difficult areas.

And then there’s history teacher Lynn Nulty, of the Hun School in Princeton, N.J., who got stuck in a traffic jam Friday and used Facetime to teach her class from the middle of the Pennsylvania Turnpike:

“Bridging a distance of miles through technology, McNulty yesterday used the school’s electronic resources and her tablet computer to teach her class from her car that was stopped on the turnpike, which was shut down for hours because of an initial 25-vehicle pileup.”

Many states and districts have online-learning requirements, too.

So as educators get more accustomed to the idea of virtual learning, could a public school district ever go completely online?

What would be needed? First, a lot of money. It’s still news when districts—especially big ones, at least—establish 1-to-1 programs that give every child a computer or tablet, but those don’t guarantee Wi-Fi at home. Those programs don’t guarantee food at home, either. As many critics of snow days pointed out during some of the severe weather the past month, many students rely on school lunch programs for food, and go hungry without school. With the current Congress more likely to cut SNAP benefits than extend them, school lunch programs become even more pivotal.

There are plenty of cultural barriers, too, of course; I’m pretty sure communities like their physical schools. My colleague Michelle Davis did an excellent story on all the barriers districts are facing in adopting blended-learning models.

But I think it’s an interesting thought exercise to consider the full potential of online learning, because it consistently appears in popular culture’s idea of “the future,” as in the acclaimed futuristic novel Ready Player One, where many children learn online because most public schools had pretty much given up. If similar works don’t put children in remote-learning situations, then they at least always show them engaged with a computer. Even popular depictions of the future that don’t include apocalyptic conditions tend not to show classrooms that use less technology than they do now.

In late January, Education Week published an article about virtual-technology use in teacher colleges, which seem to have only recently discovered the digital age that Hollywood has envisioned for decades and which already seems to be firmly established:

“Many observers have raised doubts about whether schools of education are providing future teachers with the skills they need to address blended learning, and whether they’re using digital tools to improve instruction.”

This raises the question of whether many teachers are unprepared for a shift that may already be taking place. So just in case anyone thinks virtual-learning technology is a fad, there’s a great deal of evidence, anecdotal and otherwise (even cultural), to show that it’s sticking around and only growing more important, which in turn suggests a world demanding increased technological savvy. We’re not at time-traveling-robot-assassin level, exactly*, or one-teacher-for-everyone, either, but if you’re an educator, it’s probably worth knowing how to work an iPad.

*Not that we’d know.

Image: The T2: Terminator 2 3-D experience at Universal Studios, in Orlando, Fla. Credit: Wikipedia/bredgur

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.