Reasons that high school isn’t good preparation for college—and how digital learning can help

After I had written this last week but before posting it, Grant Wiggins passed away. I’m saddened to lose a valuable voice in education. I never met Wiggins or saw him present but found his writing to be consistently clear, thoughtful, and thought provoking. On his blog, Grant Wiggins explores “8 Reasons that today’s high school is poor preparation for today’s college.” The interesting point from a Keeping Pace perspective is how many of these reasons can be addressed via some type of digital learning. Below I have provided a numbered list of reasons that Wiggins gives that high school doesn’t prepare students for college well. The comments in between the points are my reflections relative to digital learning.

  1. “The schedule. No college has any class meet every day; no college schedule requires a student to be in class every hour of the school day. Many classes meet for 2 or 3 hours at a time.”

Schedules are indeed often different between high school and college (although one of his commenters noted that some college classes do meet every day.) Blended programs, and indeed non-blended block schedules, are often more similar to college classes than traditional high school schedules. Online classes are largely asynchronous, forcing students to learn another type of class schedule.

  1. “Homework expectations. It is assumed in most colleges that for every hour in class a student is expected to work at least an hour outside of class on reading, writing, research – often more.”

I have no reason to think that most blended classes have more homework than face-to-face classes, although perhaps flipped learning incorporates higher levels of homework than usual. But online courses often require students to be more self-directed and to do more work at home—or otherwise outside of a regular classroom—than traditional classes. These characteristics would help students with college classes.

  1. “Writing. In all but the least demanding colleges, students are expected to write serious academic papers of at least 3-4 pages every few weeks in courses other than Languages or Math.”

It seems possible that a good online course could require a larger number of writing assignments than traditional classes on average because any participation or discussion points may be built around writing (i.e. discussion boards). However, online courses could easily depend largely on multiple-choice questions and in that case would not have more writing than a traditional class.

  1. Online work. In most of today’s college courses, there is a significant online component to the course.

Other blog posts have explored the ways in which digital learning in high schools is likely to help students in college. In addition, in focus groups and interviews we have often heard from students and parents that they believe that taking an online course will help prepare students for college.

  1. Primary-source reading. The expectation in all courses in the sciences, history, philosophy, and social sciences is that students will have to do some significant primary-source reading (and writing on it).

I don’t see any reason to expect that online courses would have more primary source reading than traditional classes.

  1. Close reading. The expectation in all courses is that students know how to read analytically and critically – and take effective

Online courses tend to have more reading than traditional courses, because so often the main content delivery is via text. Digital content demonstrations often lead with animations, videos, and similar content that is not text, but when students and teachers using online courses are asked about them, they usually refer to extensive text in their courses.

  1. Self-regulation and self-advocacy. Professors will not seek you out if you are doing poorly. The expectation is that you will go for help, find study partners, seek assistance from tutors and special programs, etc. on your own.

This is a notable topic because online learning observers and advocates often stress the need for student support (as we have here and here). If less support is provided does that better prepare students for college? My guess is probably not because most students would have a poor online course experience. But perhaps online courses give students the chance to become increasingly self-directed.

  1. There are hundreds of courses and programs that a high schooler has never heard of, and electives begin in the Freshman year. Students need to be prepared to self-assess, experiment, get inside information, consider their interests and talents, etc. before they face the course catalog for the first time.

If the vision of course access that Digital Learning Now and others advocate comes to pass, students will in fact have many more choices than they have now. Whether this would prepare them for the larger course catalogs of many colleges still seems to me to be an open question.

Depending on how one counts, between three and six of Wiggins’ reasons that high school doesn’t prepare students for college could be alleviated by some form of digital learning—which is not to say that digital learning is the only way to alleviate most of these issues.