E-Learning Seeks a Custom Fit

By Michelle R. Davis — January 29, 2010 7 min read
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In teacher Liz Sanchez’s virtual poetry and literacy classes, she can tell how much time each student spends on a particular lesson, track a student’s participation in group discussions, and have struggling students read aloud virtually, without embarrassing them in front of their peers.

Because of those capabilities, Sanchez argues, she can identify a student’s needs better than she ever could in a traditional, face-to-face class.

“I’m able to pinpoint and tailor what each student needs to meet the course objective,” says Sanchez, who is the site coordinator at Forks High School, in Forks, Wash., for the Virtual High School Global Consortium, based in Maynard, Mass. “I can do that without singling anyone out and embarrassing them.”

Giving students a personalized learning experience can be crucial to improving education, and many experts say online courses are especially suited to provide such attention. Virtual schools and classes use everything from online data collection to one-to-one virtual interactions with teachers, and can offer more options for accessing course material than classes in brick-and-mortar schools provide.

In a world where students and adults use online tools to customize musical choices, TV viewing, and a host of other activities, online education options can feel like a natural progression, some advocates say. But even some e-learning supporters say online customization won’t have a widespread impact on most students’ K-12 experiences until the traditional structure of education changes significantly.

“The potential is definitely there,” says Yong Zhao, the director of the Center for Teaching and Technology at Michigan State University, and the author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. “We need a reorganization and rethinking on a system level.”

Speed Up or Slow Down

To be sure, students learn best in different ways. Some absorb knowledge most efficiently by reading texts, while others might have more success watching videos, engaging in hands-on learning, or using a combination of those approaches.

In a traditional classroom with one teacher and 30 students, “it’s very hard for that teacher to personalize instruction for each student using a single textbook and a lecture style of teaching,” says Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, based in Vienna, Va. “With online learning, you can allow for that personalization to happen both in the instructional design of the course … but also in the ability of the teacher to provide extra support when a student is struggling, or accelerate one who is ahead.”

Apex Learning, an online-course provider based in Seattle, has three versions of many of its core courses, says Cheryl Vedoe, the company’s president and chief executive officer. For example, a 9th grade English course is available in a version targeted at most students, as well as an accelerated honors version, and one called “literacy advantage” for students reading below grade level.

Within each of those courses are multiple ways to access the content, Vedoe says. Some students may click on audio and visual material provided with the text, but since doing so isn’t required, others may bypass those features. Students may feel more comfortable communicating with their teacher through a wiki, through e-mail, by instant messaging, or by telephone. All those means of getting in touch are options with Apex online courses, Vedoe says.

In addition, online teachers have more tools at their fingertips to use extra materials from the Internet to either feed a student’s enthusiasm for a topic or reinforce material, says Cathy Cheely, the director of Virtual Virginia, a state-led online education program for middle and high school students.

“The nature of the delivery of these courses allows that more easily,” Cheely says. “The world of the Web and those resources can be brought into play quickly, especially since the core content of the course is already there.”

‘The Individual Is Paramount’

Proponents of online courses believe virtual teachers can get a faster feel for a student’s needs, says Patrick. Every click of the mouse that students make, how long they work on a particular section, and how much time they spend on discussion boards are all automatically recorded. More advanced systems can track students’ past performance and compare those records with current performance, Patrick says, and provide a plethora of built-in assessments.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, Cheely believes that online teachers spend more time interacting on an individual level with their students than teachers in traditional classrooms. “When our teachers come on board, we tell them they need to be prepared for the intensity of the job,” she says. “It’s much more student-centered than what a classroom teacher might experience.”

Online, a teacher often works with one student at a time, Cheely explains. Communication, whether through Web conferencing, e-mail, or instant messages, is also often one-to-one. “Some people are startled by that,” Cheely says. “They think of online education as being remote or independent, but … the teacher’s role of working with the individual is paramount.”

Cindy Knoblauch, an English teacher with the Florida Virtual School, the largest state-sponsored online school in the country, says she was initially surprised by the amount of individual interaction she had with her online students.

“Every virtual school teacher will tell you a student is going to be much more frank and forthcoming when they’re just talking to you,” she says. “You can find where the gaps are, which is much more difficult to do in a group setting.”

Zhao says online education can also give students the ability to customize their own experiences, providing access to teachers, outside experts, and subjects they’d never be able to have at their own schools. “If a student wants to study Chinese traditional painting in school, they can do that online,” he says.

The Case for Face-to-Face

But Carol Ann Tomlinson, an education professor at the University of Virginia and an expert in differentiated instruction, counters that all good teachers are able to provide customized learning in a face-to-face classroom as well as or better than virtual teachers can.

Hallmarks of a successful teacher who is able to customize instruction in a traditional setting are similar to those in the online world, she says. For example, a teacher should have clear expectations about what students are to learn, but flexibility in how to get there. Constant assessment—“not as a way to fill in the gradebook,” Tomlinson says, but to see where a student stands—is critical.

Plus, she points out, teachers who customize learning effectively in a regular classroom do provide a variety of ways to give students access to material, besides just lecturing.

“The job of a teacher is to make sure kids learn,” Tomlinson says. “Teachers want to do what works for kids. They see the differences in students and want to figure out how to reach them.”

Some aspects of online education also make it difficult to gauge a student’s progress and his or her understanding of the material, says Sanchez of Forks High School in Washington state, who points to the subtle cues offered by face-to-face interaction.

“Sometimes, students will say they understand, but when I look at their faces I can see they don’t,” she says. “I can see that light that comes on in somebody’s eyes, that dawn of understanding.”

And technology can sometimes be a barrier to effective communication between teachers and their students, who may have difficulty navigating an online course or using the technology.

Even so, says Sanchez, programs such as the Virtual High School mitigate those problems, both with video-conferencing where teachers and students can see each other on screen, and by requiring students taking online courses to have an on-site facilitator to help with technical problems.

“I’m not certified to teach DNA technology, but I know how to be an online student,” Sanchez remarks. “I can say, ‘Here’s the problem, and this is how you fix it.’?”

The real issue, says Zhao of Michigan State University, is not whether courses are delivered online or face to face, but whether the delivery is customized. He envisions a future in which every student would have an individualized education program, or IEP, like the plans now required for students with disabilities. Online courses, he believes, can play a central role in making that happen.

“The one-size-fits-all, mass-production, mass-market system is not serving our children well,” he argues. “Personalized learning should be the goal.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2010 edition of Digital Directions as E-Learning Seeks a Custom Fit


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