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11 Questions to Answer Before Beginning Online Learning

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Questions about the use of online and blended learning for our teachers and students keep arising. Just because it can be done, should it? Can online learning offer the same assets as face-to-face learning? Does it take more time for teachers?  How do we measure the work of the teachers that becomes less observable behind the scenes of online learning...or,  in fact, does the work become more observable?  Will departments chairs and principals have to enter these courses to observe the work being done by students and teachers?

If a teacher is assigned five classes, and two are online classes, what are the management and personnel issues that accompany the difference between their work and the work of other teachers in face-to-face classroom environments?  Those who have taught online classes know all too well, that there is a time differential...it takes more or time to plan, create, and manage online learning and that time can be invisible to observers.  Should we schedule larger classes when they are online?  Will that become another question of equity?    

Higher education is ahead of us in wrestling with the questions. In the New York Times article, Business School, Disrupted, captures the debate within Harvard Business School about MOOC's and online delivery.  Those professors are engaging a highly successful tradition in the context of a market shift. They have written about disruption and innovation; now they are figuring out how to invite it in. What is lost? What is gained?

The most important lessons for K- 12 leaders come from a statement made by Harvard's Professor Porter, "I think the big risk in any new technology is to believe the technology is the strategy." That is our key. Whether or not the use of any new technology is successful depends upon how much we know and understand, not only its capacities, but also how it is best used in our environments.

We are going through a time where we feel our work is being disrupted.  In a very real sense, we need disruption. However, disruption that accompanies innovation needs shepherding from within.  Our attention to this issue is paramount as are the questions we need to raise and share before leaping into this powerful arena.

  1. What are the reasons we should step into the online and blended learning wave?
  2. What do we need to learn about this medium, as a community, before moving ahead?
  3. What classes are best suited for this delivery?
  4. Can all students benefit from online learning? Which one benefit most or not at all?
  5. How will we ...or do we even try...to create equity between teaching an online class and a face-to-face class for teachers?
  6. Who in our district is best suited to develop and deliver our first online or blended learning opportunities?
  7. What are some obstacles that may arise in the implementation? 
  8. How will we respond to those obstacles we can anticipate and who will respond to those we don't?
  9. What needs to be done to support and evaluate the implementation, the teacher, and the students?
  10. Who will be in charge of the process?
  11. How will the pilot be reviewed and to whom will results be reported?

Returning to the important statement made by Professor Porter, 'I think the big risk in any new technology is to believe the technology is the strategy," we must not allow the flash or popularity of any technology to lead us away from our purpose and our value to individual students and to society.  The technology is a vehicle for implementing the strategy. What strategy of ours beckons us into this territory? If we are led to develop opportunities in which information can be taught, or reinforced, in the privacy of a digital environment, the technology can be designed to meet that need.  All online learning opportunities are not the same.  They are good as their designer and the teacher who delivers them. Colleges are struggling to decide about online learning because not doing so can be a financial catastrophe for them. We have a different struggle. 

We need to become more flexible in our use of time to meet the needs of our student population and the demands on the system. We need alternatives that provide individual attention to students' needs.  We need to offer developing opportunities to students who surely will be required to take online courses once they reach college and enter the workforce. So online learning in our schools, most certainly has a place in our college and career ready agenda.  It is up to us to decide where and how.  Higher education is being pushed economically into the environment. We have a bit longer but our shift will be no easier. Planning begins now. Maybe, like Harvard Business School, we need our own skunk works.

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