Online learning and blended learning are here to stay, and here to expand. As shown in the latest publications by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, and Education Week’s own continuing coverage in its Digital Directions magazine and its recent special report on the emerging policy debates in virtual education, the possibilities and opportunities include multiple new pathways for students to access courses “anytime, anywhere.”
The benefits to students are clear: flexible scheduling, course content and assessments on demand, and the opportunity to personalize learning goals matched to course objectives. Teacher benefits are also easy to see: a chance to redefine and develop one’s skills through a new mode of instruction and to stretch professionally beyond the workday boundaries of a brick-and-mortar school. Using new technologies can be exciting and engaging for students and teachers and can redefine the classroom. Online programs, for instance, are conducted completely over the Internet, while blended programs include interactions between teachers, students, and course content through a combination of face-to-face and Internet-based interactions.
As school districts nationwide face declining aid, educators are being challenged to sustain high-quality programs in the face of budget and staff reductions. It is tempting to look for quick solutions that keep schools on the cutting edge of instruction and technology while saving money. Online learning is seen as a cost-effective and quick solution to preserve or expand course offerings, while softening the blow of reduced resources. Online learning also serves to reimagine the role of a school, its teachers, and its methods of instructional delivery to the community.
As with any new trend, there is great pressure for schools, educators, and students to jump into online learning without asking whether and how it is the right solution to student, teacher, and system needs. A good starting point for any organization wishing to develop and implement an online-learning program—whether it is a fully functional online school or the selection of individual courses, assessments, or professional-development workshops—is to ask one fundamental question: What is your relationship to the Internet?
There is great pressure ... to jump into online learning without asking whether and how it is the right solution to student, teacher, and system needs.
For example, is your school’s or district’s relationship one of open access, in which students and teachers use mobile devices to download digital content and connect with peers worldwide, Internet-based instruction is found in every content area and grade level, and teachers receive sustained professional development in using emerging technologies?
Or, is your relationship one in which students are told to leave their cellphones in their lockers (better still, at home); teachers are restricted from all websites ending in “.com,” regardless of their content; and there is no system in place to protect identifiable student information?
If you answered yes to the first set of questions, your school or district may be ready to develop and implement an online or blended instructional program.
Of course, “ready” is a relative term. For students, it means that the school has adequate academic-integrity and cyberbullying-prevention policies in place. For teachers, it means that the Internet is used for more than downloading resources, and is part of the instructional core: Teachers not only search the Web for content, but also teach students how to search responsibly, evaluate information, and draw conclusions. For districts, it means that policies and procedures are in place to prevent misuse and protect students, teachers, and data confidentiality; and those policies and procedures are constantly reviewed and updated to address school and district needs.
The degree to which you answered yes may help determine whether your school has the digital infrastructure, teacher capacity, administrative support, and communitywide interest needed to develop, implement, or grow an online- or blended-learning program. The degree to which you answered yes also determines whether your online program could involve the purchase of individual vendor-developed courses taught by your own teachers, the development of a fully functional school in which students from your district or the entire state could enroll full time, or something in between. Local and state laws, regulations, and policies will establish the parameters for the type of online-learning solutions you seek.
In New York state, for example, the question of Internet relationship is essential in cultivating a statewide virtual-learning network in which courses and programs offered from various regions can be connected and shared for all students who wish to take them and the teachers who wish to teach them. At the same time that New York is trying to increase the capacity of and access to online and blended learning, state officials are also mindful of the need to enable safe and appropriate use of the Internet, in an open relationship that responds to local needs and meets the demands for college and career readiness. New York state education law mandates that the state department of education provide assistance and resources to school districts regarding the safe and responsible use of the Internet.
A closer look at the New York law also provides an opportunity to guide school districts on gauging how local education policy and instruction on safe and responsible Internet use is addressed, and whether such policy and instruction expands the district’s connection to the virtual world. If safe, appropriate Internet use is integrated in all aspects of a district’s instructional program, the district may have the infrastructure in place to support online learning. Systemwide integration means that the Internet is available for teaching and learning in all content areas, with frequent assessments to determine students’ understanding of strong Internet practices, and with rigorous and ongoing professional-development opportunities to help teachers and administrators work online.
In addition, through an Internet-safety program-evaluation rubric developed in partnership with several New York educators and organizations, schools and districts can evaluate their Internet programs according to essential elements for students (acceptable and effective use, cyber-ethics, “netiquette,” protection of personal information); teachers and administrators (curriculum, instructional alignment, assessment, professional development); and districts (acceptable-use policy, Internet filtering and monitoring, confidentiality of student information). I encourage all educators to download, adapt, and share the program-evaluation rubric.
It is challenging to implement online- and blended-learning programs with reduced funding and the current restructuring of the teaching workforce. It is especially challenging to implement such programs without adequate digital capacity and access—or without policies in place that enable more open Internet use when the infrastructure is sufficient to support online learning. Local and state capacity to implement online learning requires careful thought, a thorough needs assessment, and an honest answer to the question about one’s relationship to the Internet.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of Education Week as The School-Internet ‘Relationship’ and Its Impact on Online Learning