In Search of the ‘Ultimate School’

Latest Project Tomorrow poll captures online learning sentiments and shifts.

GUEST COLUMN | by Sanjeev Ahuja

CREDIT Blackboard imageSince education is the topic at hand, surely you can handle a little pop quiz: Who is taking the longest to embrace online learning?  A) teachers B) students or C) parents?

The answer is A. Astounding, right? We all know that change can be hard. But in the case of online learning, it’s inevitable. For a decade, Project Tomorrow, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving K-12 science, math, and technology education, has conducted the Speak Up National Research Project. It is the largest survey of unfiltered stakeholder data. The 2012 poll captured sentiment on online and digital learning from 2,431 districts comprising 466,310 K-12 students, parents, teachers, administrators, and support staff nationwide. The results are compiled in “2013 Trends in Online Learning: Virtual, Blended and Flipped Classrooms.”

The key finding: teachers lag students and parents in supporting online learning (the fact that students and parents agreeing on something is startling in and of itself). The report reveals that nearly half of high school parents and students in grades 6-12 would like more online courses yet only 17 percent of teachers are interested in teaching them. Further, eighty-nine percent of parents want their child in a class in which mobile devices are used. Some have seen the value firsthand because they’ve taken online classes for work.

“Being able to take classes online and electives at school would be more motivating,” a ninth grader in the Merced Union (CA) High School District said. “It would encourage more students to do well academically. It would also teach students to be more independent.”

While educators may be a bit slower than parents and students to embrace online learning, there are several reasons that are forcing a shift in that thinking. A fundamental reason that educators are avidly incorporating online learning is because of an imminent fundamental change in the way they will teach: Common Core. Though officially debuting in the 2014-15 school year, this new model for instruction emphasizes analytical thinking and application of academic lessons to real world issues. Blending learning technology with traditional teaching methods is surging in part because educators realize that to meet Common Core standards and prepare students for college with 21st-century skills, they need to adopt creative and collaborative teaching methods. Technology allows teachers to innovate and scale their methodologies in a way they would not have been able to do without it.

Another shift is further motivating teachers to foster online learning: flipped learning. In a flipped classroom, students complete exercises and watch instructional talks online at home, which frees up class time for experience they can’t get elsewhere: peer discussions and individualized attention from teachers. Teachers report that this model also improves their own productivity.

“Online learning helps our younger learners be better prepared not only for higher education, but the challenges and technological advances that are a part of our professional world,” Julie Evans, chief executive officer of Project Tomorrow, said. For many students, technology and online learning are effective because it empowers them with some degree of control over their education.

“Utilizing technology in teaching is crucial to our students learning!” says a Canal Winchester (OH) Local School District administrator. “We are doing an injustice to our students by not having all the resources [out there] at their fingertips starting at the earliest of ages for each child individually.”

“In my ultimate school, I would want laptops used in every class, online chat rooms for students to talk about what they are learning, online tutors, optional online classes for out-of-school subjects students are interested in, downloadable videos from demonstrations for students to study, and online content for students to study while they are on vacation or ill,” a sixth grader from the Blue Valley (KS) School District reported. Teachers take note (and take advantage): technology can help inspire students to study even when they are home sick.

While the ultimate school – and really the ultimate anything – is purely aspirational, schools can continuously improve. It’s okay if you did not pass the pop quiz. Just be sure you’re ready for the test.

Sanjeev Ahuja is Vice President of K-12 at Blackboard Inc. Learn more at: www.tomorrow.org  Also, follow @BlackboardK12 and #SpeakUp on Twitter and visit blackboard.com/K12.

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