Not all online learning is the same

I believe that good online learning should be part of every student’s school experience. I do! It should not replace the classroom experience – ever! – but it should be one of the opportunities offered.

So I was concerned this week, when colleagues shared two very critical articles on online learning:

Online Charter Schools have “overwhelming negative impact,” study finds.

Online schools ‘worse than traditional teachers.’

The media coverage is based on this October 27th Press Release: The National Study of Online Charter Schools offers a rigorous analysis of the operations of online charter schools, their policy environments, and their impacts on student achievement. Conducted by three independent research institutions, the study is the most comprehensive examination of online charter schools to date, and is organized into separate, topical report volumes.

The findings may be significant. But here’s my first thought – this research is based on online charter schools, so if we shift away from ‘online’ and focus more on the other two words: ‘charter’ and ‘schools,’ then maybe there’s no reason to worry. But this is not my area of expertise, so I turned to some colleagues in the independent school community for help, and I am pleased to share the emails, with their permission:

Michael Nachbar, ED of the Global Online Academy noted:  That study points to exactly why it’s critical for independent schools to define this space for themselves. The study isn’t saying online doesn’t work, it’s saying certain models may be less effective. You know Baskin Robbins? They used to have 31 flavors of ice cream. Now they have hundreds. Online education is the same way – there is no single flavor that defines what it is, just like you can’t say that ice cream should taste like vanilla. These ’studies’ are focusing on a single flavor and saying that all ice cream is bad. That’s silly.

Take, for example, this quote from that article: The online schools relied much more on students driving their own learning and often determining the pace at which they advanced. The way programs do this varies dramatically. We try to get our teachers to think differently about how they “deliver” content, putting much more ownership in the hands of the students. Many online programs just have kids working with software – very different approaches that use similar language.

If you look at the study, you would also see findings such as Online charter schools place significant expectations on parents as one of the factors leading to student challenges. So, are we going to also look equally at the role of parents in students’ education or just say online is bad?

These articles are small, narrow focuses on slivers of data that represent a fraction of what’s happening in online learning today. Online charter schools are almost all powered by the same giant content providers, such as K12, which is digitized content and exactly why independent schools need to define the space themselves.

Donna Orem, CEO of NAIS, noted: My concern is that schools will read this study and shy away from experimenting with online and hybrid models. We are still very early in the process of learning from new models and there are bound to be successes and failures. Independent schools need to be experimenting with new models, and many are, with great success. If we don’t keep innovating, some of the new types of schools, like the Alt School in San Francisco, that are investing large sums to understand how technology can advance personalized learning, may eclipse us.

Brad Rathgeber, ED of Online School for Girls added this:  Honestly, I really can’t stand most current research about “online schools/online learning.” It would be akin to doing research about the effectiveness of “face-to-face” schools — there are so many “flavors” of online education out there that there needs to be greater nuance to the research.  At the same time, the “flavors” are still being defined, as the field is so new.

A couple of years ago, Michael Nachbar and I co-wrote a whitepaper on “online independent schools” hoping to define the space more clearly.  The definition that we created is extraordinarily different than what many would assume (or imagine to be) online learning, and extraordinarily different than the types of online education discussed in these studies. http://schoolpress.cdn.whipplehill.net/osfg531/1/files/2011/04/Online-Independent-Schools-OSG-and-GOA1.pdf

At its best, online education furthers a core promise of independent schools: to personalize learning down to the needs of each individual.  Our schools have promised this for generations by forming tight-knit and caring communities, and offering small class sizes to better differentiate learning.  Online education adds to that promise by expanding opportunities to meet the passions of each student (and the resources available to each school), and to augment (not replace) what can be done face-to-face.  Our schools are wonderful!  It makes no sense to limit them, though, by just the bounds of the physical campus, especially in this day and age and especially when online learning can help deliver on our core mission and promise.

Claire P. Goldsmith, Director of Admissions and External Relations of Stanford Online High School and Stanford Liaison to the Malone Schools Online Network, added this: Looking at the study and working from our experience (with Stanford OHS and Malone Schools Online Network, MSON), we would suggest the following points:

The online charter schools described in these articles have about as much in common with Stanford OHS and MSON as the average charter school has with the average independent school. The fact that both are online is like saying that both types of schools use classrooms or desks. Still, this begs the question—how, and why, are the two models so different, such that student outcomes would be different as well?

1) All of the online charter schools in this article are asynchronous, meaning students work on a self-paced schedule, posting in message boards, taking online quizzes, etc. This works well for students attempting to go at their own paces, whether for acceleration or remediation. In this model, and, it seems, especially in the schools studied here, students typically have little interaction with teachers. Indeed, the Mathematica report cited in this article observes that students in the online charter schools had less teacher contact than their counterparts in brick and mortar schools.

At Stanford OHS (and in MSON), students meet in live, real-time, interactive seminars. The average class size is 15, and students and the teacher are seen and heard throughout class. Because this is a “flipped” classroom model, the entire class—which meets twice a week for 75 minutes on a set schedule—is interactive. Attendance is mandatory, and participation often makes up an important part of the student’s grade. Outside of class, students engage with their teachers in office hours and with their peers in study groups and through community and extracurricular activities. Our instructors, who are full-time teachers at Stanford OHS, get to know the students and families well and are part of an engaged professional development community, fostered by frequent in-person meetings at Stanford.

The synchronous focus of Stanford OHS and MSON distinguishes them from most other online learning programs—we are neither MOOC’s nor self-paced online courses. We build these courses on the premise that learning happens through interaction—between teachers and students and students and their peers. Fundamentally, technology facilitates the age-old relationships that make excellent schools. This is quite different from the philosophies of the online charter schools mentioned in the article; they describe themselves as “individualized education” and “personalized learning” (vs. interaction, cohort, or community-focused).

Indeed, the latest analyses of MOOC’s show that interaction is important. This Carnegie Mellon study, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is a great source on the topic: http://www.educationdive.com/news/study-shows-students-benefit-from-interactive-elements-of-moocs/405829/. The study basically found the importance of interaction in online learning for student outcomes.

Of course, our model still has less contact time than most brick and mortar classrooms, but it’s designed to be meaningful contact time—and fully interactive.

2) The Mathematica report also notes that students in the online charter schools “lacked support staff like guidance counselors and tutors.” We have a complete set of student services (academic advising, socio-emotional counseling, college counseling, a writing and resource center, student tutors, etc.). Our students receive considerable support.

3) Finally, it bears noting that of course there are other elements that make it problematic to compare online charter schools with everything in the independent school, online world (OHS, MSON, OSG, GOA, Bay Area BlendED, Hybrid Learning Consortium, Laurel Springs, etc.) We are selective independent school programs that do not serve all students. In the case of Stanford OHS, we are selecting for highly academically motivated students. In the case of MSON, we are serving only students already enrolled at top independent schools seeking advanced coursework. The second article you sent notes that the online charter schools “relied much more on students driving their own learning and often determining the pace at which they advanced.” Our students certainly drive their own learning—with engaged teacher guides.

Bottom line, I would suggest that it’s impossible to extrapolate from these articles any broad claim about “online learning,” as the kind of online learning, the outside services like support, student life, etc., and the kinds of students served vary considerably.

I hope this helps!

p.s. Thanks to Bill Jones for initiating a great conversation.

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