Gallup has just released it first poll done on American attitudes toward online education: http://www.gallup.com/poll/165425/online-education-rated-best-value-options.aspx. And, while some of the results may be in line with expectations for those of us in the field, others are surprising.
Overall, Gallup found that online education rated higher when compared to bricks-and-mortar schools for value and a broad range of learning options/opportunities. And, the survey found that that online education rated lower for respondents in “quality of instruction” and individualization of instruction.
To me, the interesting thing is that even in the fields where the general public perceives online education (overall) as a lower quality option, large percentages of Americans viewed online education more positively — 11-23%, depending on the question — and even larger numbers viewed them to “be the same” — 31-42%.
Both of these are higher than I was expecting. To have pluralities of Americans say, for each question asked, that online education is better or the same seems to be a radical shift of perceptions, and might signal greater acceptance and growth with a “mainstream” audience.
My hope is that Gallup continues this survey on an annual basis so that we can see how attitudes truly shift.
Last year, my colleague Lorri Palko and I developed a six-month long blended professional development experience designed to help schools create comprehensive plans for online and blended learning. Thirty-five schools in four regions participated in the program last year. This year, we will work with more than one hundred schools in ten regions around the country.
The program is structured with six months worth of online course work and two in-person workshops. During the first in-person workshop, I am often asked what I think is most essential for independent schools to do in this field. Every time, I answer: start tinkering.
I know that this advice flies against the traditional operation of independent schools — we want to study and contemplate change. And, this inclination comes from a good place — we want to make sure that we are offering the “best” education possible to our students and for our families.
Today, with our understanding of brain development evolving and with the options for pedagogical change through technological advancements increasing, “best” is a moving target.
Schools that have been experimenting, trying things out, and tinkering are finding out that the benefits of doing so are not always the ones that are sought from the outset — they are finding unexpected positive outcomes.
In the August 2013 Scientific American, Rob Lue, the Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard, chronicled his journey with online education. Lue was one of Harvard’s early pioneers in online education — creating an online course for the first time more than a decade ago. Then, Lue, a molecular biologist and HIV/AIDS expert, saw online education as a way “to combat the many misconceptions surrounding AIDS in the public mind.” That goal could be accomplished, but Lue found online education could do more:
Online classes are not just about sharing educational materials via the Internet; they are also about developing new ways of teaching based on those materials for both on-campus and online audiences.
Lue argues that success in developing new teaching methods is a direct result of tinkering and experimenting in the field:
Underlying all these exciting efforts is the awareness that experimentation is key and that we do not yet know how to best harness the enormous positive potential of the online revolution for on-campus learning… Indeed, institutions of higher education must engage with this process of exploration if we are to develop effective new models that broaden access to high-quality educational content while sustaining and indeed growing the in-person structures that support the joint enterprise of research, scholarship and teaching.
In our work with independent schools, we have found that some of the early “tinkerers” in online learning (schools that started tinkering two, three, or four years ago) are finding that their approaches to curriculum and teaching are changing (increasingly at a fast rate). These tend to be the schools that experimented with flipped learning three years ago, that have developed some of their own online courses, and that have “blended” class time with online course work (to the point where some “seat time” is eliminated). Over the next number of years, as independent school faculty tinker and experiment, and as we learn from practitioners like Lue, our teaching practices will change and new ideas will emerge. But, however they change and however they emerge, it seems that the schools that have been experimenting and tinkering will be able to adopt and adapt quickly, while those who wait for one “best” practice to emerge before ever engaging, may be waiting, and waiting, and waiting…
I’ve spent the last week out in California visiting a few truly wonderful schools and attending and presenting at two conferences: the OESIS and the CAIS Heads and Trustees Conference. The OESIS was a gathering of independent school leaders to talk about approaches to online learning. The group heard from some of the true experts in the field, including Michael Horn and Mark Milliron, and from a number of practitioners (like myself and my friend Michael Nachbar from the Global Online Academy). Over the weekend at the CAIS Heads and Trustees Conference, the conversation was more varied. Sessions on data analysis, business practices, and marketing were mixed in with sessions on character education and community building.
What stuck me as interesting is that at both conferences I heard more pessimism than normal (perhaps more than I have heard before, save the 2008-2009 school year). There were many people at both conferences who were not just worried about the future of independent schools and the independent school business models, but downright scared and fearful. For those of you who know me or read this blog, you know that I generally share concerns about the long-term sustainability of our operating models. For me, that concern was primary catalyst to become engaged in online education, change jobs, and become involved with the National Business Officers Association as a board member. However, I am also a person who cares deeply about independent schools, what they have to offer, their communities, the personal relationships they foster, and deep care for good teaching and learning. What I have started to see develop (and which was readily apparent at both conferences) is that there is a growing number of people who are willing to not just change the business model but also compromise the character of independent schools along with it.
There are tough questions and problems that schools are grappling with right now, and the financial pressures that schools are dealing with will likely not get better any time soon in many communities around the country. We should look to new possibilities for teaching and learning; we should figure out ways to be expanding our communities; and we should take hard look at current resource allocations and be willing to make tough choices. However, as we do so, I think that we’ll be better served by operating out a “place of strength” rather than a “place of fear.” This past week, I saw lots of folks approaching challenges from that place of fear.
Online learning is a field in which it is easy to see how a difference in approaches plays out. Schools operating from a place of fear worry about “being left out of the game.” They see online learning as a potential cost savings tool or revenue generating tool. They see that resource allocation change and a handful of universities, for-profit companies, and schools generate new funding streams. They look to engage in the field quickly, and likely think of online education as a potential “silver bullet” to solve financial concerns. On the other hand, schools operating from a place of strength look to see how they can further their mission through engagement with online learning. They work to expand opportunities for students and build community in new ways and forms. And, they hold true to an independent school model of valuing personal connections as an essential element of the learning process. Financial concerns are on their mind and are likely mitigated, but the primary focus is following mission and holding true to core beliefs.
For years, some of the wisest voices in our community have argued eloquently that independent schools operate best when they maintain a dogged focus on mission. I believe that this could not be more true as we explore opportunities with online education.
The Sloan Consortium has released their annual report on the state of online education in colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, online education continues to increase both in terms of students taking for-credit courses and the number of universities becoming more involved in the field. Key findings include:
Perhaps the most surprising finding (on the face of things, at least) was that:
While it might be surprising to see a declining rate of support from faculty for online education, another research report (from Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group) gives some insight as to why this is the case. They found that:
Experiences of colleges and universities suggests that faculty who engage in online education are both more positive about online education overall and supportive of greater moves into online education, whereas those that do not see it fearfully (and potentially as a threat to their positions). The lesson learned for independent schools is that as they engage in online education it will be increasingly important to help faculty have the opportunity to engage in online learning themselves. It will not be enough (though may be a good start) to support individual pioneers, and may require (depending on the culture of the school) faculty to engage.
In my work with the Online School for Girls, I have seen some anecdotal evidence of great success in schools that have offered (or even required) faculty engagement in online education — through professional development or teaching courses themselves. And, it is certainly the case that the most engaged independent schools in online learning are the ones where faculty members have experienced online education (teaching or taking) the most.