An article that made sweeping generalizations about whether traditional classroom learning “works” would be laughable: we understand that the specific details, program models, curriculum, and of course, teachers, matter. Yet, when discussing online learning, broad generalizations about radically different programs and teaching models are accepted at face value.
The recent New York Times article, More Pupils are Learning Online, Fueling Debate About Quality, falls blindly into this trap. In rapid-fire succession, the article lumps a credit recovery course in Memphis (which by the reported cost of $164 per student appears to have limited or no teacher interaction) with the Virtual High School Global Consortium (a decade-old consortia of schools known for outstanding professional development for “trans-classroom” teachers and a very progressive pedagogy). While each program may have its place, they are wildly different models, with totally different cost and teaching structures.
When debating the quality of any learning experience, the details matter. As Marianne Bakia, senior education researcher at SRI International and one of the authors of a 2010 meta-analysis of online learning conducted by the U.S. Department of Education explained to me, to be useful, we need to be specific as to “what works for whom, what implementation practices matter, and why.”
One of the teachers commenting on the Times article sums it up best:
I have been a teacher in the public school system for two decades, and I find it ridiculous that we are arguing about the effectiveness of online courses as if all online courses, and students engaged in them, are equal. Do we not have vastly varying quality in traditional classrooms? Are all classroom teachers equally effective? How about school leadership – are administrators all equally competent? We cannot be dismissing online education as if it is “one thing”. There are quality programs out there, just as there are poor ones. There are students out there for whom online learning works, just as there are students for whom it does not. There are courses with content that can be comprehensively presented in an online format, while there are courses that cannot.
The problem with education as I have seen it over my twenty years involved is that we are always looking for a one-size-fits-all approach. If teaching and learning were that simple we would not even be having this conversation today…
PS – This is the third extremely shallow, poorly-researched article from the Times covering online learning (here and here). All three suffer from a pre-determined framing that pits technology vs. teachers. Definitely not paywall-worthy!