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.

The value of pink erasers

When I was in school, and we were bored in class, we sometimes passed around scrunched up pieces of paper.  We tossed them whenever the teacher turned her back or we maintained eyes front, in a studious pose, and passed them surreptitiously palm-to-palm. This amused us and connected us.

Or we wrote on pink erasers.  They were smallish, so you couldn’t fit much on them, maybe fewer than 50 characters.  But you could quickly delete any comments if necessary.  So you’d focus on the most important stuff, like:


“I’m bored”

“Question #25?”

“Do you like Kevin? Circle yes or no.”

Back in the 70s and 80s, pink erasers had a negative impact on classroom behaviour – they supported student distraction and cheating.

The pink eraser only served one educational purpose. It didn’t provide access to a limitless world of information, or connect you to students and learning around the world; and you couldn’t toss one to your Mom to ask if you could stay late to work on an assignment. No, the pink eraser only functioned to ensure that work was neat.  It is debatable if Marshall McLuhan would have even considered it to be an extension of a student.

I wonder.  Did educators debate the value of pink erasers and whether or not their potential for negative classroom behaviour outweighed their ability to improve work?  Did they discuss how to manage classrooms with pink erasers?  Did teachers sit in staff meetings discussing how to ban them or how long to keep them once confiscated?

Pink erasers have been a part of our classrooms for a long time (since 1770 – and that is no exaggeration!) and although students may still need the odd reminder of when it is appropriate and polite to use them, they know.

How long before cell phones are the same?