Online Learning's Growing Pains

 In my last blog post I asked, "I wish there were more research about homeschoolers and their use of distance learning compared to how school uses it now and proposes to use it in the future. Does anyone know of such studies?" No one replied to me with a direct answer, but I learned from a friend about this recent story concerning the failures of K12, the largest distance learning company in the United States, and it led me to the other stories I link to below.

Educators are tied to the notion that if a properly trained teacher doesn't expose a child to an idea, thing, or event the child will never learn about it. In the school model of learning, I see why this is believed so deeply, but here is more evidence that this is a flawed view about the scope and sequence of learning in real life.

Here is a for-profit company, using the latest technology as well as federal and state curriculum standards, exposing children to the school curriculum on a daily basis in their own homes, and yet, according to this study, the online students do even more poorly than the brick-and-mortar students. As John Holt noted in 1964 in How Children Fail, "I teach but the students don't learn; why?" Holt's answers to this question are deep and took years to develop, yet they are ignored by schools. The school response has always been that it is better to focus on the institution of school and technology, since they are more easily controlled by education officials than children and society. Someday we may decide to work with the children and society side of this equation, but here are the current results of working with the teaching and technology side from the study "Understanding and Improving Virtual Schools":

  • Only 27.7% of K12 schools reported meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2010-11. This is nearly identical to the overall performance of all private Education Management Organizations that operate full-time virtual schools (27.4%). In the nation as a whole, an estimated 52% of public schools met AYP in 2010-11.
  • Thirty-six of the 48 full-time virtual schools operated by K12 were assigned school performance ratings by state education authorities in 2010-11, and just seven schools (19.4% of those rated) had ratings that indicated satisfactory progress status.
  • The mean performance on state math and reading assessments of K12-operated virtual schools consistently lags behind performance levels of the states from which the schools draw their students.
  • The on-time graduation rate for the K12 schools is 49.1%, compared with a rate of 79.4% for the states in which K12 operates schools.
  • Many families appear to approach the virtual schools as a temporary service: Data in K12’s own school performance report indicate that 31% of parents intend to keep their students enrolled for a year or less and more than half intend to keep their students enrolled for two years or less. K12 also noted in this report that 23% of its current students were enrolled for less than a year and 67% had been enrolled for fewer than two years.

The above study led to this article that should be read by anyone considering replacing human contact and relationships for learning at home with technology: 

Study Renews Call to Slow Growth of K12 Inc. Virtual Schools

Finally, the day before I read these articles (thanks to my friends who keep sending me these suggestions to read, BTW), I read this one about how Arizona State University is taking educational technology to its next logical step if you believe that only what you teach and expose people to is what they learn and care about:

With 72,000 students, Arizona State is both the country's largest public university and a hotbed of data-driven experiments. One core effort is a degree-monitoring system that keeps tabs on how students are doing in their majors. Stray off-course and you may have to switch fields.

And while not exactly matchmaking, Arizona State takes an interest in students' social lives, too. Its Facebook app mines profiles to suggest friends. One classmate has eight things in common with Ms. Allisone, who "likes" education, photography, and tattoos. Researchers are even trying to figure out social ties based on anonymized data culled from swipes of ID cards around the Tempe campus.

Data mining hinges on one reality about life on the Web: What you do there leaves behind a trail of digital bread crumbs. Companies scoop them up to tailor services, like the matchmaking of eHarmony or the book recommendations of Amazon. Now colleges, eager to get students out the door more efficiently, are awakening to the opportunities of so-called Big Data.

The new breed of software can predict how well students will do before they even set foot in the classroom. It recommends courses, Netflix-style, based on students' academic records.

Data diggers hope to improve an education system in which professors often fly blind. That's a particular problem in introductory-level courses, says Carol A. Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation. "The typical class, the professor rattles on in front of the class," she says. "They give a midterm exam. Half the kids fail. Half the kids drop out. And they have no idea what's going on with their students."

So the latest research says online learning is worse than learning in conventional schools, and the president of the National Center for Academic Transformation says that half the kids fail and half drop out of conventional college introductory classes. What's a parent of a schoolage child to learn from this research?

There are other paths for learning besides using canned lessons in school and at home, as homeschoolers have shown for decades now. Homeschoolers have been using the Internet and other technologies for decades but I think there are substantial differences in the motivations and uses for technology when the learner works with technology rather than the technology being used to work on the learner.