I believe in online learning. I first started working with virtual school students as the coordinator of a middle school summer remediation program in Hamilton County, Tennessee, in 2006. I remember that hours of phone calls with parents that first summer all started out one way – “Is the computer on?” From there we talked about browser plug-ins and enabling pop-ups, and I marvel now that so many of them persisted. In 2006, there were no iPhones or iPads, people still rented movies and games from Blockbuster, and Instagram was four years from launch. Dropbox and iCloud didn’t even exist. Yet persist these learners and families did, and online learning has grown into the mainstream of learning for students at every age level. Why?
I believe that first and foremost, online learning is “learning the way we live.” I am old enough to remember opening my first email. I can clearly recall the light-bulb moment when I realized that there was almost no question to which the answer could not be found on the Internet – from my smartphone. From those moments to now has not been so very long in time, but I live my life completely differently as a result of the technologies that are constantly at my fingertips. Can the idea of “school” –can the evolution of learning -- really remain viable and meaningful in the realm of K-12 education if it fails to embrace technology?
I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “no, it can’t.” Online learning represents a readily available means of personalizing and customizing learning scenarios for students, but even more importantly, I believe, it lays a foundation for 21st century skills that will be vital for the citizenry of tomorrow.
Through the utilization of online learning, elective choices available to a school’s students can go from 10 to 100; foreign language offerings can go from Spanish only to any one of six options, including things like American Sign Language; credit recovery can go from a few modules of boring busy work to meaningful, adaptive learning that increases understanding and comprehension; significant learning gaps and special needs can be addressed by scaffolding content from other content levels right into the learning path and easily creating alternate assessments; and students who do not thrive in a traditional setting have an option for home-based learning that doesn’t mean they have to leave the district.
A second important distinction is that online learning is self-directed learning. This is a new role for most of today’s students, and one they desperately need to master in order to successfully prepare for college and careers. Online learning encourages the development of time management skills, goal setting, and self-advocacy in a way that teacher-directed, seated courses cannot. Students must take the initiative in online courses and utilize a variety of technologies to engage with the content, their course facilitators and support staff, and the learning platform itself.
Becoming proficient at learning online and utilizing technology for deeper learning is no longer a nice add-on; it is a foundational part of successful living in the 21st century. And the good news is that it’s easy for schools to start with small initiatives and scale up in the directions that best serve the needs of their students, students, who, like little Ben below, will never know a time when they did not interact continually with technology.