The article located here, by David Brooks, explains a couple perspectives with online learning. I think it does an okay job of taking a balanced look at online education. Currently my opinion on online learning and blended learning fits within the frame of the article; online education provides a mode of learning roughly equivalent to a regular classroom for motivated students.
They key part of that last idea, “motivated” students, requires a bit more explanation though. Many students choose online learning for great reasons, especially at my high school. They have experienced life style changes that no longer allow them to leave home as easily, they experience social phobias, local school bullies have made life too miserably, and other situations that make online learning a more convenient option. Other students choose the online school as an “easy” route to credits and a high school diploma. For the most part these students are not motivated in their regular schools and this has led them to needing an alternative. Personally and professionally I believe that alternative should not be online schooling.
If a students lacks motivation in a brick and mortar school moving to an online school will only exacerbate their problems. At a regular school students make one choice about attending or not attending school for the day and once they are there they are more or less captive. I understand many students skip class and walk off campus but this requires effort and sometimes quite a bit of planning. In an online school the students make that choice about attending every moment of the day. “Would I rather read up on Facebook posts or complete an assignment?” “Play that video game or add a response to that discussion.”
Even in online schools where the students participate in synchronous learning sessions they have the opportunity to make choices that lead their attention much further from their classwork than they can in a regular classroom. In a regular classroom a teacher can see students and visually assess their attentiveness. In an online session I have had students get up, go to their refrigerator for orange juice, turn on some music, welcome someone into their home, and play a hand of virtual poker. Were they paying attention when I explained that we use Astronomical Units as a way to measure distances within our solar system? Unlikely. In fact the student I am thinking of did poorly on that section of the exam. The only reason I even know this happened was because they accidentally left their mic on. Most of the time the instructor has little notion of student engagement except through polling tools, chat, and quick response buttons.
All of this makes me think that online education serves a useful purpose and, in a blended learning situation, provides greater tools and access to the best resoures. Ill-motivated students, on the other hand, will find themselves ill-prepared and likely fail in a virtual school environment. For online learning – motivation is key! Despite this one area of misgiving I think that online learning will continue to grow and that teachers and school districts should work to take advantage of online learning as a powerful way to connect students to greater learning.