Should online learning be for all students?

A recent post, Study of online passing rates in Michigan suggests that online learning is not for everyone, generated several thought-provoking responses. Among them was an email from Joe Freidhoff, Executive Director of the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI). Keeping Pace readers may recall that the blog post about passing rates was based on an MVLRI study. The post explored whether online courses and schools are the best fit for all students. My conclusion was they are not, but that figuring out how to counsel students in or out of online options is a contentious issue, particularly if online schools or course providers are doing the counseling. Joe’s email includes the following ideas:

“When I talk about the underperformance issue, there are a couple of angles I take.  First, we need to do better.  A component of that is what you address in your post about the need for proper counseling.  That said, what bothers me about how people interpret the effectiveness data and even to some extent a conclusion which some might draw from your blog post is the thought that online learning is an optional skill and that some students out there would be better off without it. Here is what I tend to say.

Close to 95% of four year public colleges and universities offered distance education programs in 2013, and over 5 million college students took distance education courses that year. Even more common is the incorporation of learning management systems into the face-to-face courses offered at colleges and universities where students access course content and submit course assignments through these online systems. Professional development has continued to move online and reskilling of the workforce requires that workers be able to learn in a variety of modalities including online.  Remote (or teleworking) jobs are becoming more and more typical as are jobs that require interacting with staff through online technologies.  The reality is that knowing how to learn online is part of what it means to graduate college and career ready today. 

Knowing that, I think the question parents, students, and those counseling them should be asking about online learning options is “Is this an educational experience that would benefit my child [me]?” If so, then the question becomes what is the plan to help the student gain proficiency in learning online. The goal of online learning is both to acquire subject area knowledge, skills, and dispositions, but in addition it is also to acquire competency in a new learning modality. What is damaging about current online learning practices is that too many of these “plans” begin with an online course or often too many online courses at once, and the plans do not allow students to be successful.

My question to you and your readers, is what does one do after the child is labeled as not ready for online learning?

This is a deep topic that could easily be the subject of an extensive study instead of just a few blog posts, and in fact I believe it is an area that tends to be overlooked and would benefit from much more attention. I appreciate Joe providing his perspective and have a few thoughts in response.

The concept that online courses provide values such as technology competency and learner independence that are necessary for college and career is undoubtedly compelling. The states and districts that have created online learning graduation requirements have recognized these skills as necessary for graduating high school. However, the total number of students across the country who attend schools in states or districts that have these requirements is no more than about 15%. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that although online learning advocates may believe in the value of online courses for providing technology and other skills, this value has not been widely recognized by state legislatures, state boards of education, or school districts.

Still, the lack of widespread online learning graduation requirements really just pushes the question of working with a range of students a bit further downstream. If online advocates believe in the value of online courses for students, then offering online courses to all students and providing the support necessary for all students to be successful would seem to be the logical approach. Similarly, given that online courses can solve issues of access for students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to take a wide range of courses, figuring out how to make online courses a feasible option for all students is essential to solving the equity issues.

Many educators believe that achieving success in online courses with a wide range of students requires that an onsite mentor take an active role with students. This person does not have to necessarily be a credentialed teacher, but must help guide and motivate students in their online courses. State virtual schools and other online course providers and advocates often recognize this need, but budget allocations for online courses often aren’t based on the expectation that an onsite mentor will be heavily involved with students.

When studies suggest that the cost of online courses are fairly close to the cost of face-to-face courses, skeptics often wonder how that can be, given the perceived lack of need for physical facilities. Part of the answer is that a key driver of costs in education is the need for teachers and other adults working with students, particularly for students with a low probability of success in an online course if no onsite adult is present.