Online courses and pro-d programs have expanded rapidly and will continue to do so. The ability to learn in an online environment will be an important life skill in the foreseeable future, and arguably is already. So, why don’t we make completion of at least one such course part of every student’s graduation program?
OK, let’s just skip the “yabbuts” for now. That’s always an easy response/excuse, but these are problems to be solved not reasons to stall. If this is a good idea, let’s do it. But what makes it a good idea?
The benefit for students seems clear to me. Assuming a good quality course, which I will address in a moment, the experience of learning online in a supportive environment is good preparation for a world in which this will be increasingly common and expected in all careers, and also important for personal fulfillment.
There are also benefits for the school system and for teachers. This policy would be a lever that would force change in the system as it addressed the need for instructors capable of providing the course, providing access for students who require it and whatever policy and technical issues that are lagging and in need of update to support this change. For individual teachers, it provides an opportunity to develop understanding and comfort in the online environment that is inexorably bearing down upon them. School systems would need to provide support for this learning, the benefits of which would extend beyond the particular course to the more general need to incorporate new technologies into instruction.
Imagine that a particular course in the graduation years were to be converted to online only provision. In British Columbia, for example, it might be the Planning 10 course, which is intended to “enable students to develop the skills they need to become self-directed individuals who set goals, make thoughtful decisions, and take responsibility for pursuing their goals throughout life.” Rather than just point students at a web site and wish them luck, the course could be organized as a hybrid; that is, face-to-face meeting with students from time to time (more at first and less later in the course) and the balance of the learning activities conducted asynchronously by students individually or in groups on their own time. This would enable teachers to provide supportive scaffolding as students learned to be increasingly self-disciplined and self-regulating. For those students who wish or require it, computer access could be available through the school library or computer lab.
The school system would have to establish an appropriate hardware and software environment, and also provide support for teachers in learning to employ it. Teachers would need to accept responsibility for this learning and thus for increasing their proficiency in the online environment. Reluctance to accept this challenge is understandable, but, I would suggest, no longer acceptable for either school systems or teachers.
The first attempts at such instruction might be somewhat primitive imitations of traditional instruction. It takes time to learn to exploit the potential of the technology but every journey begins with a single step, and this one is over due. There is no advantage to further delay.
There are also many organizational issues to resolve. Should students be required to be in a classroom during the scheduled time for this course even if its not a face-to-face day? Do students have to be in school at all during at such times? How will computer access be organized for those who require it? Teachers for this course will need to have their own computer for planning and for student interaction. Will they then be expected to respond to student inquiries outside of traditional instructional hours? Should they establish email contact with students? What about Twitter or Facebook?
Yes, there are lots of questions and they are perfectly valid ones, but these are the questions that must be resolved for schools to move ahead with instructional use of technology and it is no longer acceptable to use them as an excuse not to do so. The time has come to stop cutting bait and start fishing.