NEA policy statement on digital learning shows lack of understanding of online education

The National Education Association put out a policy statement on digital learning on July 5th. The statement includes several ideas which we strongly agree with, but also perpetuates a myth about online courses. First, our points of agreement: the NEA says that “our traditional school models are not capable of meeting the needs of the 21st century student.” We agree. “All students—pre-k through graduate students—need to develop advanced critical thinking and information literacy skills and master new digital tools.” And: “Digital technologies create new opportunities for accelerating, expanding, and individualizing learning.” Yes, and yes.

But then: “Optimal learning environments should neither be totally technology free, nor should they be totally online and devoid of educator and peer interaction.” (emphasis added)

We agree that education should not be devoid of interaction, but totally online courses are not devoid of interaction with teachers and other students. In fact, a good online course has a high level of involvement from the online teacher, and online teachers often tell us that they know their online students better than they knew their students in physical classrooms.

We see this incorrect assumption made routinely. We hear well-meaning educators say “we believe that blended learning is the way to go, instead of online, because we want our students to interact with teachers.”

Today’s online courses are not the computer-based instruction of decades ago in which the student worked with a computer program that was devoid of human interaction. Good online courses today have extensive teacher interaction that happens to be often based in digital tools. Those interactions may be designed to help students master new digital tools, or might simply be the methods that Millennial students are already expecting and experiencing in other realms.

We’ll end with a slightly edited version of part of the NEA statement, with which we wholly agree:

“To that end, NEA believes that student learning needs can best be met by [educators] develop[ing] comprehensive and thorough digital learning plans that address all the elements of incorporating technology into the instructional program. These plans should be living documents, constantly reviewed and adapted as changing circumstances require, but always keeping the focus on student learning. Implementation of these plans should honor experimentation and creativity as part of the learning process for both educators and students...It is of critical importance that the use of technology is recognized as a tool that assists and enhances the learning process, and is not the driver of the digital learning plan.”

The only (slight) edits we made to the above statement were to shift the focus where it belongs—on the student. The original statement was close, but not quite there.