Opinion: Figuring out online learning issues

Using technology in student learning is a new and huge responsibility for teachers and administrators. Mainly popular with university students, there appears to be no stopping online growth. This past year more than 2.5 million U.S. students were enrolled exclusively in online courses.

Now online learning is expanding to include elementary, middle level and high school students who will work online while in classes. Some argue this is not best for students.

In Kansas, fourth through eighth graders in one McPherson elementary, and in Wellington fourth and fifth graders in one elementary and grades nine through 11 work online.

Both schools are using online as part of overall school redesign launched by the Kansas State Board of Education. Districts will redesign to create more effective learning, in part through promoting personalized learning including, but not limited to, individual online learning.

The web-based curriculum at Wellington and McPherson is offered through Summit Learning, a free program created by the not-for-profit Chan Zuckerberg Initiative started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

In the Summit program, students complete core courses such as math by spending half their school day online. Teachers remain in the classroom. The rest of the school day is spent in traditional elective courses like music.

In April, The New York Times reported mounting opposition to Summit which began four years ago and is nationwide with 380 schools and 74,000 students. Student push-back has occurred in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Kansas.

Is opposition to Summit an example expected of any major change for students? Will online replace traditional classrooms?

Computer learning started in the 1960s, but there has never been enough systemic research to confirm its benefit. Although a Google search found scores of positive reviews, a 2017 review of research conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that online learning with no face-to-face interaction and online learning for those who are academically behind their peers is generally a poor choice.

The Kansas Department of Education has been successful in supporting online opportunities that allow students to graduate without attending regular school, for example students with health challenges or home-schoolers. Students work at their own pace and can be permitted to graduate early.

Online offerings can open specialty areas such as Latin that often are not offered in rural schools because of lack of enrollment or qualified teachers. Online courses also allow students to accumulate college credit while in high school, thus cutting college costs.

Fully online classrooms can free teachers from making lesson plans and grading quizzes. These teachers can supervise more students, which helps districts trim budgets.

The problem is that online students need to be self-directed, organized, focused learners. Successful with college students and some high school students, distance learning is new to elementary, middle level students and some high schoolers who may lack the development or interest to work independently.

While children can happily play video games — it seems almost endlessly — that’s different from studying online within a classroom of peers, separately, to master difficult subject matter.

Online is not geared for teachers to nurture creativity or enrich class discussion.

Online can be blended with traditional learning. It’s a benefit that Summit allows program customizing by schools. Online is a step forward, but without moderation it can leave students with reduced teacher interaction, social/emotional support and peer teamwork–also department of education redesign goals. Next year in McPherson and Wellington students may choose between online and traditional courses.

Let’s give school districts some space as they work to create the best balance for in-school and online learning.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio is a professor and dean emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.

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