DesNews Piece on Online Education

I was recently asked to contribute a brief piece on the topic “Will Online Courses Transform Education?” for the Deseret News, a Utah newspaper. They ran the piece today; I’m syndicating it here for those of you who don’t read the DesNews. Readers of my blog will have heard me say much of it before, but here it is again in a condensed form.

Hundreds of years ago, before the invention of the printing press, education was not very different than it is today. Students piled into university classrooms with the medieval equivalent of empty notebooks. Because hand-copied books were so incredibly expensive to purchase, students spent a large portion of class time listening to teachers slowly read classics to them, so that students could copy them down by hand. Just imagine writing out your own copy of Aristotle’s Ethics or Plato’s Republic by hand!

Given that such a large portion of students’ time was dedicated to taking dictation, you might imagine that the invention of the printing press and the introduction of affordable, printed books would have radically changed education. Unfortunately that is not what happened. Students continued to pile into lecture halls, now armed with printed books, and carefully copied their teachers’ slowly-read annotations and notes into the margins of their books. The incredible technology known as the printing press had essentially no impact on the practice of teaching and learning. To this day, the overwhelming majority of teachers assign chapters for students to read before coming to class, only to stand at the front of the room and essentially read the chapter back to them while students take notes.

If the printing press could not catalyze a revolution in teaching and learning, why would we expect any of the long line of amazing technologies that came afterward – including portable writing slates and chalk, ball point pens, pocket calculators, laptop computers, and the Internet – to be any different? More specifically, in a modern educational world that has yet to make peace with calculators (should students be allowed to use them on tests?), it can be difficult to understand why people believe that computers or the Internet can revolutionize education.

Asking whether technology can revolutionize education is asking the wrong question. It’s akin to asking if hammers and saws can build houses. Only people can build houses or revolutionize education. Technology gives us powerful tools to accomplish educational goals, but unless we pick them up and use them to do something different than we did before, there won’t be a different outcome. If we pick up these tools and use them to do exactly what we did before, we will get exactly the same outcomes we did before.

And why would we spend millions of dollars on computers, software, and Internet connections for exactly the same outcome?

Much has been written about the effectiveness of online learning compared to classroom learning. Why would we expect there to be a difference in effectiveness between students who watch a lecture in a classroom and students who watch a lecture on their computer? The educationally important part – the fact that a student is passively taking in a lecture – is the same. If you had some students complete their work in pencil and others complete the same assignment in pen, would you expect to find a difference in how much they learned? No – because the kind of writing implement students use isn’t what promotes learning. The nature of the assignment is the educationally important part. More colorfully, would we expect the Jazz to win more games if they wore different jerseys? No – because the color of a player’s jersey doesn’t contribute meaningfully to how well he plays.

If we could bring ourselves – culturally, legally, and politically – to use technology to do new and different things educationally, we might begin to see different results. Let me give a concrete example.

The Open High School of Utah (full disclosure – I’m the founder of the school) is an online school that uses technology to enable their teachers to do things differently. First, OHSU teachers use technology to automate repetitive tasks – instead of giving the same lecture several times a day, OHSU teachers create improved, online replacements for the lecture experience that students can access whenever they like. And when a teacher doesn’t have to give the same lecture several times a day, what can they do with the time they save? OHSU also uses technology to collect data about student learning in real time and provide teachers with access to these data. When you combine timesavings and access to data, both provided by technology, you enable teachers to do something different. Every day these teachers make data-driven decisions about who needs extra support in their learning and then reach out to those students individually. Imagine a teacher that is able to spend the bulk of her day in one-on-one tutoring sessions with students who need help! That’s a concrete example of leveraging technology to allow teachers to do something significantly different – and, I would argue, better.

There’s nothing complicated or fancy about what the Open High School of Utah does. You can explain it in a paragraph. Every school is capable of doing something similar, adapted appropriately for its local circumstances. But the school’s founders and current leadership are committed to exploiting technology to enable teachers to do things differently. And because the school’s approach to teaching is different, they have a reason to expect student results that are different.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that our schools need to do things “differently” because our current approach to teaching is horribly broken, as some might lead you to believe. The approach to teaching we’ve used for the last several decades has put us on the moon and given us the Internet, smartphones, and electric cars. Rather, I would argue that our schools should do things differently because modern technology enables them to do even better than they have in the past. And I believe our schools have a moral obligation to our students to be the best they can. All our schools – both traditional schools and online schools – should be using technology in ways that enable our teachers to do things differently and better this year than they did last year.

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