Thursday, February 18, 2016

Why Quality K-12 Online Education Is Important

by Abby Johnson
Sing it from the rooftop -- tradition prevails! Why fix something that isn’t broken? What crazy trend is happening now in education? If you’ve found yourself uttering these thoughts, you’re not alone. Education is changing... for the better! Educators need to be ready to keep up with the changes in order to best prepare their students for the ever-advancing world around us. Quality online education is no longer something we can associate with space-travel, hoverboards, and cloning -- as a thing of the future. In fact, we’ve tackled all of those things already; we’ve been to the moon; hoverboards have been invented; and have you met Dolly? The future is now, and by embracing it, we can push students to achieve things greater than we ever imagined and teach them what they need to know to grow potatoes on Mars.

First, though, let’s break down what online learning actually involves. Typically, this type of learning environment involves a student learning through technology. Rather than sitting in large lecture halls, students are encouraged to learn through self-discovery, with the teacher acting as a learning guide and mentor throughout the process. This independent new generation can finally stretch their learning muscles as they work asynchronously through courses, meeting with teachers as needed. However, supports can be put in place to ensure every student succeeds, and synchronous, regular online classroom meetings can serve to provide a more directed educational experience.

Also, let’s look at how many kids we’re actually talking about here. According to a National Center for Education Statistics survey, 11% of undergraduate students were exclusively enrolled in distance-learning courses, with the graduate numbers nearly twice that! Additionally, 14% of all undergraduate students and 8% of graduate students were involved with at least one distance-learning course. Total, that’s over a quarter of all higher-education students involved in distance learning, and these numbers are expected to keep growing!

Now, what about the quality of these e-learning courses? How do they stack up against traditional education? The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has answers for that, too. After evaluating more than a thousand studies and compiling the results into one report, the DOE found that students who participated in online courses outperformed students learning the same material in a traditional face-to-face environment. However, the online instruction does not simply guarantee success. The DOE report also noted that students taught in a blended learning environment had the highest scores. This isn’t too surprising, though; we all know education requires a recipe of strong ingredients to ensure success: a blended learning model, teacher time and dedication, quality curriculum, and applied pedagogy.

What about after students are out of the classroom? How is all of this blended learning preparing them for the “real world”; how will it make them successful in their careers? A 2015 Gallup poll found that 37% of Americans telecommute to work. Students can take the skills learned through independent study, technological integration, and the blended classroom model and apply them to new opportunities across various fields.

Let’s slow down for a moment, though. It’s clear that online education is solving our future problems, but what about some of the challenges that educators are facing in their classrooms already? How is a blended-learning classroom or distance learning helping to address subpar curricula and low student engagement? Let’s break it down together.

Due to budget constraints, textbooks can often be outdated or even irrelevant. Instead of acting as a primary resource for a course, this old, dog-eared, torn-paged paperweight can be found holding up a wobbly desk or collecting dust in a storage room. Does this scenario sound familiar? Or, for the classrooms where the textbook is up to date, does the sharing system sound familiar? Instead of every student having his or her own copy of the material, students have to work from a class set or have the teacher waiting in long lines at the copier. Online learning solves these problems by creating a curriculum that’s accurate, focused, and adaptable. Furthermore, brick-and-mortar classrooms can reap the benefits of this online community. Instead of relying solely on bound textbooks, these teachers can turn to the world of Open Educational Resources (OERs) and begin pulling these high-quality, trusted resources into their lesson materials.
Online learning is also tackling the issue of low student engagement. Long gone are the days of simply watching video lectures. Instead, these courses are turning to games, puzzles, and interactive simulations to enhance the learning experience. Are your students learning about space? Why not have them complete a space exploration simulation, filled with audio from real missions? Additionally, by having students engage with the material in new ways, educators are challenging them to really process and apply important learning concepts. If the space unit continues, why not turn to some footage of astronaut training? This will make a far, far away concept come to life for your students. Additionally, online learning materials are designed to incorporate interactive formative assessments in these resources. Think of an entertaining video that has pop up text boxes throughout, prompting students to consider different points and answer questions as they go along.
Online learning is changing the way we think about education; it’s challenging educators to take control of their lesson plans and create relevant, engaging material for students. Technology itself cannot support an entire generation of learners; instead, it requires the help of dedicated teachers who want to prepare their students for what lies ahead. This preparation can begin today, as we begin opening our classrooms to the world around us and take learning beyond the four walls of a traditional brick-and-mortar school.

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Abby Johnson is a Subject Matter Expert at Spider Learning, Inc.