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Saying No to Online Learning? Hardly

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Luddites and self-styled liberal arts purists across the country took a bit of momentary comfort in the past few days as faculties at two private bastions of undergraduate liberal arts education, Amherst College and Duke University, voted their institutions out of administratively contracted agreements with purveyors of online education. Huzzah for the flesh-and-blood classroom! Down with MOOCs!

Well, the fine print below the headlines put the lie to the notion of out-and-out repudiation. In both cases, the dissenting faculties followed up their nay votes with resolutions affirming that they would, as the academic engines of institutions of learning, proceed in the direction of online learning, but on their own terms.

Lost in the excitement over the politics and the apparent slap in the face to the online education trend that for a few brief hours this afternoon (Tuesday, April 30, for the record) was actually the LEAD article on the New York Times website are several deeper lessons with special relevance to independent schools but applicable, I think, to all.

The first lesson is indeed political. The Amherst and Duke faculties asserted their primacy in the work of the college; Duke's provost, Peter Lange, was explicit in acknowledging that a faculty vote superseded a contractual agreement made by administrators. Ultimately, teaching and learning come first.

It's not an exaggeration to say that independent school heads in the 21st century spend more of their time dealing with the corporate, fiscal, and advancement side of school management than they do overseeing the academic programs. Friends in the business have commiserated in private over the simultaneous pressure and attraction they feel to become fundraiser and marketer in chief, leaving others--assistant heads, academic deans, division leaders--to manage the teaching-and-learning side of things. (The parallel for public school principals and superintendents is the need to build support via non-stop community and political engagement, a similar distraction from traditional ideas of educational leadership.) The Amherst and Duke votes were excellent reminders of the supreme academic purpose of those schools, contracts with the entrepreneurial minds behind EdX and 2U (the rejected platforms) be damned.

The second lesson is related: Schools have and must stick to missions. The thousand and more independent schools in the U. S. differentiate themselves by their missions, expressed in formal statements, mottos, enumerations of values, and above all their lived cultures. Schools are different, just as universities are different, and what works for one school, or even a consortium of schools, will not necessarily work for every school.

If the Amherst faculty thinks that EdX, a MOOC-based platform, won't work well for Amherst, it's reasonable to suppose that the Amherst faculty, collectively, grasps that in some ways Amherst's mission is incompatible with EdX in its current form. If Duke's undergraduate professors are uncomfortable with the 2U model of small, credit-bearing, tuition-supported online classes, well, they do know something about Duke, after all. In both cases, the faculties left the door open for more mission-appropriate approaches to online education. Sorry, Luddites.

Independent schools, like other schools in the K-12 spectrum, are already aware of the need to come to terms with online learning. I've written lately on how the MOOC model might serve K-12, and later this week I'll lay out my still hazy and doubtless flawed vision of a blended school environment. For now the standouts in our world are the consortium-based Global Online Academy < http://www.globalonlineacademy.org/>and the Online School for Girls < http://www.onlineschoolforgirls.org/>. Both of these are independent school initiatives, and both are now facing the challenges of growth as their medium--exotically futuristic a couple of years ago--moves toward the mainstream. Other, smaller interschool collaborations, formal and less so, have been around for a while, and I'm guessing that scores of others are currently somewhere between being someone's obsessive idea and glorious roll-out in the very near future.

But each school, like each college, will have to find the model that suits it, that fits its institutional aspirations, the needs and capacities of its students, the ambitions of its families, and its culture.

It's exciting and dizzying to watch this, because it is happening so quickly. One can hardly blame the administrators at Amherst and Duke who knew that their institutions need to join this movement fast, even if we fault them for getting out ahead of their faculties.

The biggest lesson for schools, then, is that this train has pretty much left the station. By some means, on some scale, every school will soon need to figure out how it will help its students avail themselves of online learning where it offers a clear advantage over completely school-based courses. For many schools these advantages may be in advanced and highly specialized courses, while for others very basic courses may be the best use. Some schools will find ways to seamlessly blend online and face-to-face learning. Some will embrace class-size and instructional models that mimic their existing structures, while others will opt for the MOOC model. A few will lead the way toward new learning environments we can't yet imagine.

It's a great time to be part of this world.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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