What a read we had this week, huh? There’s pretty much no way to address everything, or even half of the things in it. So I’m just going to focus on a few of the more general points that surprised me. I’m not a statistician so I don’t have much to say about their meta-analysis (and the like)
First and foremost, the aspect of this report that surprised me the most was that the overwhelming majority of these studies were done not on K-12 students, but on older students in the medical field.
Go up to any random person in the United States. Ask them what they think of when they hear words like “educator” or “student” or any other miscellaneous word associated with the seemingly endless expanse that is the field of education. I’d be willing to bet good money (or, I would be, if I wasn’t a student…) that most people will talk about high school. People of a certain socioeconomic leaning will also acknowledge college students, and that discussion will almost invariably be focused on undergraduates. I’m not talking about college educated people here – but your average person on the street, who, outside of many college towns, will have been educated probably not farther than high school and maybe a bachelor’s degree. “Education” in this country focuses largely on K-12.
Now, go up to those same people and ask them which career, out of all of them, should be the least likely to learn things online. Once you get beyond the nuclear engineers and the like, I’d be willing to bet the entire medical field is pretty high up on that list. For reasons that I can’t exactly explain in great detail, I don’t want any doctor of mine to have learned anything important in an online class. You’d think that’d need to be a very hands-on field, right?
So why are there so few studies addressing high school students, and why are there so many online classes being taught to (what I assume are) hands-on fields? There are plenty of online high-school courses, and I’d like to see longitudinal studies regarding these medical students, comparative success rates, patient happiness, etc. There are some things that, research aside, as foolish as that may be, I will never trust online courses for. And I’m on record (last week) as saying that for some things, I think online courses are superior! But not for anything in the medical field (at the professional training level – obviously you can do something like organic chemistry online). Not even in pharmaceuticals.
The other thing that surprised me, other than the weird skewing of subjects, was one of the main findings: mixed classes are superior to both online classes and face-to-face courses. I’ve never been in a mixed course…or, maybe I have? I’ve certainly been in face-to-face classes that had Blackboard discussion elements. I’ve taught face-to-face classes that had Google Drive elements. I guess when I hear “mixed” I think of something more substantial than that. My question regarding this finding is nebulous…but I can’t help but feel like mixed-courses, assuming you were in more than one or two, would be exhausting. If you’re in five mixed courses, can you have a life? Can you have free time? If you’re spending, say, fifteen hours per week in the classroom, another ten doing online work, and then rounding that out with readings and homework…that’s exhausting. Yes, a lot of learning is taking place, but it sounds like a pretty fast path to burnout. I have a tendency, probably like a lot of students, to “turn off” my student brain once I leave the classroom. I’d like to see a wide scale study done comparing all-online full-time students, to all-face-to-face full-time students, to mixed full-time students. I know a study like that is complex, and large, and maybe situationally impossible (at the time – this article is quite old in terms of the lifespan of the internet, maybe it is more possible now) but I’m having a hard time picturing your average K-12 or undergrad having the attention span required to be a full time mixed student.
One thing I would’ve liked to see this report cover, though maybe it’s outside of its scope, is the stigma associated with online courses. Print-a-degree schools and the like are common enough that even legitimate online classes are seen as the “easy way out.” When I was young I used to see commercials about DeVry all the time. As a middle schooler I thought DeVry must really be up there in the rankings of universities because they could afford advertising. I mentioned that to a teacher and they just laughed. In high school, I mocked a friend because he wanted to pursue an online graduation track. We called him lazy, anti-social, and reclusive. Unfit for “real” classrooms was the general consensus we came to. Similar to, but slightly better than, dropping out and getting a GED. And I wasn’t even the kind of student who liked or valued high school! I can’t help but wonder if the attitudes that many people have regarding online education significantly color any research regarding it, because there’s going to be a.) a pretty serious selection bias issue [students taking online classes who already will do well there] and b.) maybe not a wide variety of students involved [limited learning styles, limited backgrounds, etc.]
A final note: I am not sure it’s entirely appropriate to trace the origins of online classes directly to old-school correspondence courses. This article went over that for a while, and Owen brought it up last week. The two are similar, and related, but the variety of resources available on the internet, as well as the possibility of non-linear learning (Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-Learning?) put, I think, digital learning in a completely different class than your 1800s and 1900s “distance learning.” Those are more like evolutionary ancestors than they are long-lost-grandparents. That was just a small thought that I might pursue in the future.