The Future of K-12 Online Education

About 15 years ago, I took an online course from Athabasca University. I needed one more course to be eligible to take my Principal’s Qualifications, but I had to complete the course – a full year university credit – in one summer.  I didn’t think it was possible to pull it off as I was already taking a summer education course in July and traveling across Canada in August.  My holiday was already booked!  But I signed up, got a box of books in the mail, and registered to take my exams in August in Calgary and Vancouver. 

It was unlike anything I have ever done.  I would call my assigned tutor from pay phones in camp grounds en route.  One day, Kevin and I hiked at Yellowstone National Park by day, then took turns reading to each other while we drove all night.  Another day, my Dad and my husband edited my essays while my brother typed the pages I hand-wrote. All true.  It was an intense summer, and I loved that I could get so much done in that short period of time. Did I learn more? Or retain more?  Not sure. But the experience was worth it and so was the convenience.

The fact is, online education – even back then – had an important role to play. And the truth is that most everybody does some kind of online education: for example, yesterday, we placed a number of online learning resources in our new PD Resources section of our website, and we will continue to add to the list. I’d call that online education.

But recently, there has been a lot of attention on one newer form on online education:  MOOCs.  For those of you who are not hip (like me!!!), let me enlighten you – experts are saying that the advent of massively open online classes (MOOCs) is the single most important technological development of the millennium.  (A January HBR blog highlights a panel of experts discussing the future of education, or watch the whole thing here.)

Why the recent buzz?  Loads of people are attracted to loads of content delivered to loads of students via MOOCs.  (Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera confirmed, 
”We’re at 2.4 million students now”.)  This popularity means that for American universities that traditionally charge a lot of tuition, MOOCs offer a reasonably priced way to educate students.  And the technology exists to ensure that the delivery mechanism will never be an inhibitor.  So this cheap educational option is highly attractive to a nation of young people stressed by student debt loads in America. 

So when you’ve covered the supply side with reasonable quality and competitive prices, and you’ve got demand from students around the world, you’ve got a disruptive innovation.

What is the impact on CAIS schools?  I believe it is threefold.

1.  As our tuitions continue to outpace inflation, we need to address opportunities that will sustain our schools.  Can schools integrate the online model with the on-campus experience and save – or even generate! – money?

2. As university preparatory schools, we need to prepare students for online learning.  Should K-12 schools require an online course?

3.  As schools that are passionate about learning and preparing kids for a changing world, we need to be very intentional about time.  If kids are already engaged in the online world, and they are, how can our schools do what we do even better?  In other words, can we use online learning to enhance learning through even more authentic face-to-face experiences that cannot be found elsewhere?  For instance, could we move some of the information transfer that happens in a classroom online, and instead use that class time for dialogue and debate, or hiking in Yellowstone Park? 

We must be proactive in the opportunities presented by online education.  Sustainable schools must make a commitment to seeking out new business models.  But I believe that the best business solution will always come from the best education solution.  Starting with what is best for kids must remain at the core of all we do, and that won’t change.

p.s.  Last week, Queen’s University joined the ranks of other universities trying to find their future in this new arena.  Their approach – town hall on online learning – is worth examining.  So too is their draft report.

This week, Forbes magazine chimed in:  MOOCs aren’t likely to solve the fundamental student learning challenges that colleges and universities face, and they certainly won’t take the place of a college education.

7 thoughts on “The Future of K-12 Online Education

  1. Thanks Anne Marie for an excellent overview of Online Learning and the importance of online skills for students as they move through high school into University and the work world.

    The eLearning Consortium Canada is a not for profit co-operative of independent schools which has been providing online courses to independent schools in Ontario for the past 5 years. We were founded originally by CISOntario, and recently have expanded to provide online services across Canada. We provide for fully online credit instruction for grade 9-12 students as well as course Modules (blended) for K-8 schools for our member schools.

    We have been working to address the issues Anne Marie mentions in her blog….how to provide cost effective online services to independent schools, how to ensure that online instruction meets the expectations of exemplary independent school pedagogy, and to continue the culture of student care and support to students that is found in face to face situations. With a Consortium of schools, not only are students provided with a diversity of instruction and cultures and great opportunities for collaboration, but we can cost-effectively provide schools with courses they often cannot offer due to small class sizes or staffing/timetabling issues. All our teachers take the University of Ontario Institute of Technology 125 hour Additional Qualifications course to ensure quality courses and instruction. Our model of a Site Administrators in each Home school ensures that students are monitored and supported throughout their courses. In addition, we have found our model fosters a community of educators who share best practices, and support one another to ensure quality.

    We have created a set of Guidelines for online courses and instructions that we continue to refine and develop and are happy to share. There is also lots of information on our new website – You can contact me at:

  2. Anne-Marie:

    Great post! Look at the popularity of TED talks. A favourite guilty pleasure of mine. 1400 talks. Some of the most incredible ‘ideas worth spreading’ – FREE. Some of my favourite learning moments with my kids have been looking at videos and websites to ‘ignite’ and ‘inspire’ them, to see or think differently. Whereas I am a digital tourist, they (ages 12 and 9) are digital natives.

    Even Bill Clinton even chimed in on MOOCs.

    Why aren’t more schools having this conversation?

    Suzanne Heft
    Suzanne Heft Consulting, Toronto, Ontario

  3. Read your piece, Anne-Marie. Well done and makes one think.
    It’s certainly a hot topic.
    Many times, the subject of Khan Academy has come up in my conversations with clients.
    My own daughter used it a couple of years ago to get a jump-start on the school year. Basically finished the curriculum before the year started.
    I see this kind of vehicle as an adjunct to schools, not a competitor. For certain at the university level, and perhaps at the upper levels of K-12 schools, having the best lecturer in the world delivering an online presentation is better for outcomes and much more cost effective. The question that arises, though, is can a school use this as leverage to re-assign in-class teachers to work more closely with students? As a floater, the teacher can provide more one-on-one support than s/he would do if tasked with prep time for a lecture that can be world’s-best as opposed to catch-as-catch-can. Most would see this as a very stressful transformation, and stressful as a threat to job security. The bottom line is: who does the best job? Give it to them. Who can configure the whole picture to provide the best outcome? Give the job to them.
    Does online education replace the personal touch of face-to-face teaching? Not a chance, and for the lower grades, absolutely not. I can’t even say it would be so for the older grades. Kids need the personal touch, the pastoral care, the shoulder to cry on. Not just kids, though. I have an American client prepared to pay for my travel and lodging… all to make a 20-30 minute presentation to his board of trustees. Insane! If adults need the face-to-face like that, even when we can easily set up a GoToMeeting environment, we’d be crazy to think it possible for kids.
    Best regards,
    Kevin Graham
    Lookout Management Inc.

  4. I really enjoyed your post Anne-Marie — it reminded me of my early teens when my dad was completing his degree with Athabasca U distance courses. Being able to see him in the process of continuous learning as an adult really made a strong impression on me about the value (and the variety!) of lifelong education.

    St. Michaels University School started offering a selection of online and blended learning courses this year. We see it as an important supplement to our university prep program — not a replacement for face-to-face learning. The result so far is positive: it has expanded our students’ options while enhancing their experience by combining the best of the online and the bricks and mortar worlds.

    I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot more about our experiences when this school year wraps up and we have time for reflection, but in the meantime, we posted an article about our blended PE program just this week on our blog:

    Laura Authier
    St. Michaels University School

  5. Well said, Anne-Marie – this is something we’ve been thinking about more and more at Greenwood over the past few years. We’re finding that incorporating technology and digital resources, like videos and online demonstrations, in our courses is allowing us to use classroom time more flexibly. Technology-rich resources have allowed students at Greenwood to self-pace through a lesson, unit or even an entire course. We have been using online material to compliment the classroom activities and to provide each student with the level of challenge or support they need. And, as you said, this leaves more time in class for the group discussions and teacher-student interactions that add so much richness to the classroom experience.

  6. Anne-Marie,

    As an Athabasca U alum, I can certainly attest to the role of “anytime/anywhere” education.

    I do find it harder to process if you separate “online” or “E” learning from the overall learning objectives of your school. It’s been treated as “either/or” rather than “both/and”.

    When we discuss learning, we should evaluate the resources we use to deliver… and MOOCs and online curriculum are certainly tools in the arsenal.

    Thanks for your great post.

    Kevin Pashuk
    Chief Information Officer
    Appleby College

    • Kevin

      How do you define online and e-learning? Is there a difference?

      Also, have you found a good tool to assess online programs? We are looking at how to incorporate this into our National Standards. NACOL has a good resource, but it is dated 2006, which seems ancient already!


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