Online learning challenging traditional beliefs??

Earlier this year I read with interest a report from the US department of education titled Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,which I blogged about on the DEANZ blog.

From the extensive meta-analysis that was done, the report concluded:

  1. Online education is more effective than face-to-face learning;
  2. Online learning combined with some face-to-face learning (blended learning) is the most effective;
  3. Face-to-face learning alone is the least effective method among the three types studied.

Responses to this publication have been varied – but pretty much all of them have revealed the deep-seated beliefs and values that exist in the minds of educators and policy makers that are based on very traditional understandings and experiences about classroom-based instruction.

Now, Bob Harrison, an education consultant who works with the National College for School Leadership in the UK, asks;

“If blended learning is emerging as more effective, and possibly efficient, should we really be building quite as many schools and colleges when blended, virtual and mobile learning could provide alternatives?”

It’s an excellent question! In the past few weeks I’ve been approached for advice from (a) a university planning to introduce online learning into its programmes, (b) the principal of a “greenfields” school soon to be built and opened in 2012, and (c) the principal of a local school about to undergo extensive re-furbishment and re-building. In each of these discussions I became aware of the extent to which (implicit) established patterns of thinking about schooling prevent us from being able to let our ‘minds fly’ when it comes to imagining the future. Even with findings derived from a systematic search of empirical studies such as the one above to inform the discussions, our sub-conscious seems to ‘kick in’ and cause us to think and work from the perspective that face-to-face learning must be the default, since, by implication, it’s the best way of organising formal learning.

But consider the following…

  • a global shortage of skilled science and maths teachers means that we’ll never be able to staff all of our schools with specialists in these areas (and other areas besides!)
  • the large numbers of transient workers whose children follow them from place to place, and whose continuity of learning is thus affected
  • fact that our school and university buildings are heavily used for just a part of the day, then left empty for the rest (and for large chunks of time in the year!)
  • recognition that learners learn in a variety of modes, and that group-based, whole class instruction is not appropriate for all
  • our understandings of personalisation of learning, and the ability of technology to enable a lot of what is required here

All of these things, and the list could go on, scream out for a change in the way we think about the organisation of schools and universities etc. Yet we still go on getting excited about new buildings, as if they will be the answer to what ails us in our education system. I applaud the work that is going on in several places now where the starting place is with curriculum and pedagogy, and finding ways of designing learning spaces to accommodate this – some excellent examples of this from Kenn Fisher in Victoria, Australia at the moment. But in too many cases I have seen, the architects have been called in before the educators have met to think about their shared beliefs and values etc.

I agree with Harrison when he says that this study really does challenge the current thinking and mindsets of education planners and policy makers. Where are our big picture thinkers? Where are the forums for this sort of discussion in NZ? We’ve just had a five year process with the Secondary Futures project which inspired us to think 20 years out there, but where are the changes as a result of this? Our thinking is still focused on spaces called classrooms in aggregations called schools. Our policy is still focused on funding schools, not students, on outlets in walls not ubiquitous access etc etc.

It’s one thing to do these studies, revel in widespread consultation and talk-fests, and even produce meta-level research. But unless there’s action it’s all a waste of time. And the action required here is at the highest level – with our policy thinkers and writers, and in NZ at least, the focus of attention appears to be at the other end of the spectrum at the moment, with the phrase “Risk Aversion” appearing to be the mantra that guides all government activity – certainly in the education sphere.

9 thoughts on “Online learning challenging traditional beliefs??

  1. Interesting report; thanks for sharing. It’s significant that what we once thought of online learning has changed significantly, from the kind of repetition of rote skills we saw in ‘skill and drill’ computer programs to a more holistic sense of connectedness and collaboration. That’s promising, and it has lots of implications for how schools organise themselves and their staff.

  2. As a learner I revel every day in the ‘blended learning’ opportunities I have access to…thanks for highlighting this Derek will follow your links for further reading with interest.

  3. If we follow the ripple effect perhaps we need to be the change we want to see in schools. How can a small groundswell of people start a ripple that is heard at the beehive. I’m a starter for discussion. Who else is game?

  4. Warrick – good point – something that we need to be constantly reminding policy makers about – that this whole sphere of activity is changing all the time, and our assumptions must constantly be tested.

    Cheryl – agree re ripple effect – that’s h ow the Tsunami begins! let’s see what ideas we can generate for making this happen?

    Malcolm – love the albatross analogy – and of course, you’re right, there are already examples out there that can be appropriated, as a start to the ripple effect perhaps.

  5. Was reading of Kaplan‘s product – essentially “come and get your high school diploma online” – just the other day. I assume there are others as well… it got me thinking that surely the “effectiveness” of online learning when it’s analysed from a research or meta-research perspective is highly dependent on engagement and motivation – both of which are probably present in spades because when you learn online you’re (mostly) doing so by CHOICE… Derek’s interesting comments in regard to mobility, teacher shortage, etc, aside – maybe we would lift the effectiveness of traditional instruction if students had some choice? I can’t imagine the study covered every aspect of learning present in schools – social and emotional development, etc… so for my $1.50, schools that combine the flexibility of online learning inside or alongside flexibility in traditional modes would be most successful.

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