Building on increasing interest in Web-based learning around the nation, former governors Jeb Bush (R-FL) and Bob Wise (D-W.VA) have formed an organization devoted to encouraging school districts to let more children use online education options.
Bush and Wise are cochairmen of the Digital Learning Council, a coalition of business leaders, think tank directors, and public officials whose shared goal is to increase the public funding and use of Web-based learning tools in U.S. education.
“Until now, customizing education for every student was just a dream. Technology can make the dream a reality,” said Bush. “With technology, a teacher can customize lesson plans and even tailor schoolwork to the interests of each student.”
Online Learning Ascendant
Web-based learning is already increasing in many U.S. school districts. Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform and a Council member, notes more than 1.5 million primary and secondary-school students now take some or all of their classes online.
Florida and Pennsylvania both host “virtual charter schools” that educate their students over the Internet.
“Increasingly, online classes are supplementing and advancing the studies of traditional public school students,” said Allen.
Thomas Abeles, president of software consulting firm Sagacity Inc., points out Internet video makes it possible for a teacher to instruct students in person in one school while also reaching remote groups of students elsewhere. The remote groups tune in for teleconference sessions or watch pre-recorded DVD course programs.
Software Saves Money
Abeles is not a Digital Learning Council member, but he strongly supports schools’ increasing their use of digital learning applications. It allows schools to share their limited resources, he notes.
“There are schools that are hurting because they cannot afford teachers, but they can buy courses, and it’s cheaper than to have licensed professionals that provide them on-site,” Abeles said.
Abeles said many high schools now use software programs like Illuminate, which let a teacher talk to a room full of students miles away in real time. The students converse with the teacher on-screen using microphones, while an on-screen “whiteboard” displays videos, MP3s, and any other interactive content the teacher posts.
Another increasingly popular model, says Abeles, is “community learning schools.” Students take some classes at home online and others at the school site. They also go to the school for scheduled subject tests.
“The kids can come in on their own time and [take the] test. And they find the kids do just as well as kids that have been there since early morning every day,” said Abeles.
When the students do come to school, they are allowed custom-made schedules and instruction plans. A student in a music course might have intensive two-hour lessons instead of more one-hour lessons. A sports team’s players might alternate one full afternoon of school lessons with one full afternoon the next day out on the field, instead of cramming both lessons and team sports drills into each afternoon.
Abeles also envisions schools offering more tutoring help over the Internet. He identified a college-level precedent in Smarter Thinking, an online learning service that offers 24-7 subject help to students at Minnesota State University and other colleges that buy its services.
“The students don’t have to go to the campus help center, they don’t have to wait for someone to have hours, and the tutor does not have to sit in a room and be paid even if no one shows up. It’s a very efficient way of tutoring,” said Abeles.
Blended Model Suggested
Digital tools may transform how teachers interact with students, but they won’t replace teachers. Ed Gordon, president of the workforce-consulting firm Imperial Consulting, argues a “blended” model that supplements in-class instruction with online support might work best for most students.
“Pure e-learning is useful, in general, for individuals who need to acquire new technical data. It’s great for engineers,” he said. “Pure e-learning all by itself, though, can’t and won’t, as a standalone, be able to complete the learning process for most children.”
Gordon said only in-person instruction can help students develop their critical thinking and analytical skills. Even the best Web program won’t do your thinking for you, he says.
“There has to be a social component for learning where they have the opportunity to discuss it, try it out, have it critiqued in real time,” he said.
Gordon points to a National Bureau of Economic Research study that surveyed the at-home Internet access and scores in reading in math of half a million middle-school students throughout North Carolina over a five-year period. The study concluded having a computer at home had only a very small positive impact on most students’ reading and math scores. It also found access to high-speed broadband had a slightly negative effect on math and no effect on reading.
“The majority of kids—and particularly the high-risk kids—may use computers to play games, buy stuff on the web, instant-message their friends; it will not necessarily improve their reading comprehension or their spelling and math skills,” said Gordon.
Bush says the Digital Learning Council will discuss the pros and cons of digital learning, and over the next few months the membership will draw up a list of digital-education best practices.
“They will identify and advocate for the policies and principles that local, state, and federal leaders should adopt to provide every student a customized education,” said Bush.?
The set of best practices is due for completion by December. The Council will then begin lobbying states to adopt it.
Rick Docksai ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.