By Jim Shimabukuro
Blake Binkley may very well be the emerging face of learning. “He has taken classes through Truckee Meadows Community College, the University of Nevada, Reno, through the Washoe County School District’s online learning program, the Stanford University Online High School and even the high school he is zoned to attend, Galena [in Reno].” Binkley is 18 and a home-school student, but, he says, “‘It isn’t the traditional view of … being taught at home by my mommy.’” He says, “‘It’s basically given me the opportunity to choose what I want to do.’”
Binkley should have educators, with an eye on the big e-picture, connecting the dots and realizing that the trend toward home schooling, on the one hand, and MOOCs, on the other, may be merging. Against the backdrop of MOOCs that are sprouting all over the virtual landscape, Binkley’s technologically enabled “opportunity to choose” courses to construct a learning program geared to his personal interests and needs may be an indication that land-based, lock-step, one-size-fits-all schools are becoming less relevant by the day.
Obviously, the gap between schools as they are and home schooling as the dominant model is enormous and the dots joining them are spaced far apart, but, a constructivist point of view notwithstanding, the trend seems both natural and inevitable. The major obstacle is the land-based district boundaries that are used to define and finance schools. As Michael Van Beek observes, “Even though the Internet is without boundaries, under current law a student’s ability to enroll in online programs is still limited by local and intermediate school district boundaries.” His conclusion is compelling: “These ‘schools-of-choice’ boundaries just don’t make sense when any school in the state can easily provide instruction to any student with the help of technology.”
This problem of boundaries is not insurmountable. Creative decision makers will be able to come up with solutions, and one is to simply have the funds follow the students’ choices. For example, students are allocated a certain amount, and they are free to choose courses within that budget. If they exceed it, then the the remainder is paid out of pocket. In this scenario, there are no district or state boundaries. The courses can originate from anywhere on the planet. A method for approving courses and credits will also need to be factored in.
Access to techology and online services is an issue, but in the wake of increasingly lower pricetags for a wider range of personal communication devices, this barrier is quickly eroding. Leigh Mobley, Tupelo School District’s executive director of curriculum, says that “students today do not know how to operate without it. There’s not any high school students that doesn’t have a cellphone, doesn’t have an Ipad, doesn’t have a computer.” For students who can’t afford equipment and services, there are any number of creative solutions. For example, dollars formerly earmarked for builiding and maintaining classrooms could be diverted to students in need.
Some may argue that certain courses require concrete ‘n’ glass classrooms and F2F instruction. However, home schooling doesn’t obviate this need. It simply means relocating some or many of these activities to locations or facilities closer to students. However, imaginative and leading edge course designers are exploring and discovering, literally by the day, ways to use technology to obliterate barrier that have, until now, trapped some courses in space and time. For example, Music Prodigy is “‘a new online cloud-based music education platform.’” It “is a complete learning system combining patent-pending algorithms, innovative curriculum, expert-designed lessons and exercises, and the newly released live Dashboard that automatically synchronizes [a student's] performance to the cloud and shows [how s/he stacks] up against other students in the Music Prodigy community.” In other words, students can begin to take music performance classes online and receive the kind of feedback that helps them to improve. A similar philosophy is currently being applied to provide formative evaluation in other fields that are MOOCing.
An ongoing argument against online learning is readiness. Many feel that younger students simply don’t have the discipline or judgment to learn without physical handholding in an onground class with a teacher. However, the latest technology is empowering learners everywhere and at all ages. For example, in Wellington, NZ, twelve-year-olds at Tawa Intermediate School are running their “own blog to document [their] digital learning … and regularly [post] videos online.” Some of them met with “Parliament’s education and science select committee on the subject … and took questions from MPs.” The students offered “advice to MPs on education in the digital age.” The point here is that students born in the digital age view technology as an extension of themselves, a part of their everyday lives outside of school that allows them to access and interact with friends, family, and sources of information and learning. To have to leave it at the gate when they enter classrooms simply doesn’t make sense.
Finally, there’s the argument that onground F2F classrooms are the best or only way to teach communication skills. Evo Popoff, an Assistant Commissioner with the New Jersey Department of Education, “points out a recent report on texting and student attention spans concluded ‘that those students who texted had lower scores in school…. There are concerns that texting in some way has replaced actual interaction with other students and communicating…. So they may not have the requisite communication skills – not only just to interact with other people, but professionally, when they’re doing interviews and things like that.’”
Baloney. The assumption in this argument is that texting is not a form interaction with peers and others and that texting replaces F2F interactions. It can be easily argued that texting is a dynamic medium for 24/7 communications and that it facilitates both virtual and onground interactions in both synchronous and asynchronous modes. Thus, rather than decreasing interaction, technology has increased it. As to the “lower scores in school,” any number of factors might explain it, including students’ perception that classroom lectures and readings on a given topic are less interesting than what they can learn on the open web.
Technology is empowering each student’s learning potential, and increasingly school is becoming only one of many different media for learning. At some point, students and their families will find themselves at a crossroads: to continue to put all their education marbles in the hands of traditional campus-based schools or to seek alternatives such as home schooling that offer more flexibility in designing individualized learning programs that maximize their children’s potential and interests.
Perhaps the most critical question from the standpoint of schools is survival. Will a migration to home schooling mean their demise? The answer is probably yes and no. Yes, if they continue to ignore emerging trends. No, if they adapt. The challenge is to carve out a new role for schools, one that facilitates and flows with the new forms of learning that technology is making possible.
1. Michael Martinez, “Educating at Home Expands as Technology Changes, Resources Grow,” RGJ.com, 14 Aug. 2012.
2. “Let Online Learning Flourish,” Mackinac Center, 16 Aug. 2012.
3. Wayne Hereford, “School District Makes Technology Upgrades,” WTVA, 14 Aug. 2012.
4. “Music Prodigy Gains National Prominence in Education Technology with Appointment of Ivy League Professors,” PRWeb, 16 Aug. 2012.
5. Jody O’Callaghan, “Pupils Present Online Credentials to MPs,” Stuff.co.nz, 16 Aug. 2012.
6. David Matthau, “How Is Technology Affecting Your Kids In School? Teens + Technology [SERIES],” New Jersey 101.5, 16 Aug. 2012.
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