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Prepare for the Advances in E-Learning

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e-Learning is growing in its capacity and accessibility.  As an increasing array of courses are developed, and the levels of instruction reach down into our high schools, they offer potential for variety and individualization that otherwise cannot exist. Getting in on the action now, before policy makers decide their use and impose limitations, is a good way to seize the moment. If school districts joined with state departments of education to analyze whether these online courses are aligned with the standards they hold, new possibilities can open for high school students. e-Learning should be supported by state and local policies now.

Online and Blended High School Courses
The Boston Globe reported on a recent announcement by the online-learning collaborative edX that they will begin offering courses targeted at high school students. 26 high school courses have already been created by "...14 institutions -- including MIT, Georgetown and Rice universities, the University of California Berkeley, Boston University, Wellesley College, and Weston Public High School." Students will have access to free courses like computer science, calculus, geometry, algebra, English, physics, biology, chemistry, Spanish, French, history, statistics, and psychology.  Those who are motivated will step up and take these courses, some of which are required in our high schools. Will they, then, enter our classrooms having mastered the content and become bored as they are forced to sit through content they may have already mastered elsewhere?  Or, will they, then, enter guidance offices protesting being scheduled for a course they have already taken online?

e-Learning will continue to be a growing medium. Students will have the opportunity to move ahead and learn things even before they are scheduled to be taught in their high school. These courses hold the potential for being offered instead of a class held face-to-face or they could also be offered as blended learning opportunities, placing vetted curriculum and learning resources in the hands of the teachers to use as accompaniment to their face-to-face teaching time with their students.

Advantages and Warnings
Teachers can design the use of the e-Learning opportunities, either full or blended courses as they fit the needs of each district's students. Students who may want to take a course that is not offered in the district could be offered the opportunity to do so, with school credit.  Students who need more face-to-face time with their teacher in smaller groups would benefit from a blended model in which some of their time is spent online during the school day and others are spent in small groups with the teacher, organized by need.

Online learning presents a different model from classical teaching responsibilities.  The work involved in developing online courses, or using already developed courses like the ones edX is now offering is not observable in traditional ways.  One cannot walk into a classroom and see a teacher teaching, or students learning.  Designing online learning and monitoring students doing online work will require those supervising teachers to learn how to observe course development from inside of the courseware.  They will have to know how to observe the students' work and the conversations between teachers with students and students with each other.

Unless there is a pathway for schools to be able to monitor students' progress in these online classes and verify that, in fact, it is the student who is taking the course, it is understandable that state departments of education and districts might be hesitant to allow high schools to offer credit for these online courses. But technologically, methods already exist for verifying progress and identity.

Schedules could become dynamic and individualized, and the Carnegie credit will be challenged and one day abandoned. e-Learning allows for new and different learning opportunities for students.  It, as all new things, can be done well, or poorly. Embracing it as a new teaching technology requires innovative teachers and leaders willing to step into, work, and observe in this new medium. First steps should include:

  • Finding the advantages for each district through a gathering of a diverse group of teachers, students, parents, leaders, and community members.
  • Advocating for the approval of courses to receive credit, locally and on the state level before that is decided "from away."
  • And, in the design, be clear the online courses are not intended to, nor will they ever, replace teachers.  Students will always need teachers. Online learning is not meant to replace the face-to-face value of teaching and learning.  The focus of its use is to maximize the potential of each teacher's ability to work directly with students and to broaden what is available to students everywhere.

It will surely change the way we think about high school schedules and teachers' time with their students. Schools have been willing to use some of these online programs for "credit recovery," many requiring they be taken in school at assigned times with teachers physically present.  It can't be long before the idea of "for credit" is raised.  It can either be a boon or a bust.  Best if we are involved in the design, rather than finding ourselves responding to another demand. This is a place where local decisions can be made to best meet the needs of each community...if the conversation is begun early. 

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