E-Learning Gets Real

from Technology & Learning

Call it virtual, distance, or online education. For today's curricula, it's no longer a question of whether or not to try but when to start Our survey of educators who already use these technologies can help the uninitiated.

When does an idea evolve from faddish to fundamental? These facts tell the tale: 42 states reported in 2007 some sort of virtual learning for their students; and there are at least 147 virtual charter schools operating in the U.S. Even the NEA recently wrote a thorough guide to virtual teaching.

For motivated students led by online-savvy teachers, amazing learning outside of the brick-and-mortar school can take place and expand curricular possibilities. Somewhere right now a student is studying Mandarin online, another student recovering from an injury is working from his home, and a student who doesn't learn math quickly is uploading her algebra problems. All the while a teacher is multitasking via IM, Skype, and Twitter and checking Moodle for responses to the latest class inquiry. Unconstrained by place and time, students are learning and teachers are teaching, virtually and rigorously.

E-learning is filling other educational needs and scenarios. There are those students who have dropped out of traditional classes for emotional, physical, or academic reasons and are ready to learn from home. Other students simply can't fit another thing into their schedules. Then there are those virtual students who feel too old for the class that they would be assigned to—students old enough for high school, for example, but whose grades and past performance placed them in middle school.

Additionally, homeschoolers are seeing virtual learning as a component, while others are fulltime cyber students, attending asynchronously, and never go to classes in a traditional school.

"The greatest advantage...to me [is] being able to help those students who, for whatever reason, cannot or have chosen not to attend a brick-and-mortar school. For many of my students, they would have no other way to finish their education."

Debbie Piper, adjunct business-technology teacher for a virtual public high school in Ohio, run by Connections Academy

Other schools have found the possibilities for online learning to be rich and varied, allowing AP classes to happen, for instance.

"We run one shared class of AP Calculus from one school to another. Students enjoy distance learning field trips to locations and meet specialists and have experiences that are too costly to enjoy otherwise."

Ann Thorp, Northcentral University doctoral candidate, Ottawa Area Intermediate School District

Independent Learners, Please Apply

While virtual learning offers answers to myriad needs, it is not without its challenges. If prior learning experiences include the traditional classroom—and its expectations, pacing, and teacher oversight—virtual learners must now work at a different pace, setting many of their own expectations, with oversight taking on a different nature. While some students fell through the cracks of a traditional classroom and welcome a new environment, other students may find the change in structure hard to overcome.

"[A challenge is] making continuous connections with the younger students who are placed in our program who have difficulty being independent learners."

Brad Sprague, principal, West Auburn High School, an alternative high school in Washington state that uses Apex Learning curriculum for distance learning and in the classroom

At West Auburn High school teachers approach individualized learning by establishing a learning plan, preventing any students from falling behind. Staff there also knows that one size cannot fit all:

"We can tailor a Written Student Learning Plan to meet the individual needs of a student. The WSLP allows for multiple learning strategies to be taught using the APEX curriculum as well as supplementing classroom materials to enhance student learning. Our program is an excellent opportunity to individualize and personalize a student's education."

Brad Sprague

Online Teaching—Not Your Grandmother's Classroom

The resistance that distance learning met in the '90s was partly because teachers were unsure if they might be replaced by a TV—and because they felt pressured to rethink classroom delivery. Well, no one's being replaced by electronics so far, but educators who perform well in virtual classrooms will find some things to be the same and other things to be quite a bit different. The key, teacher say, is to present well from a distance. Interaction is vital, regardless of the medium.

"I believe in using this experience as a preparation for real life. And I communicate with my students the same way I communicate with others I work with. ...I think many corporations do business like this. I emphasize etiquette, appropriate wording, and clear use of the language so that we don't misunderstand one another."

Debbie Piper

Online teaching needs have inspired online teacher programs to address the distance learning's uniqueness. A professional from a department at Mississippi State that partners with the Mississippi Department of Education Office of Vocational Education responded to an online survey describing how they ensure teachers are adequately prepared:

"I would suggest every teacher who is going to teach online be certified through an online program. The online facilitators I hire must complete basic training in use of Blackboard but ALSO a 40-hour ONLINE session (COOL Certification of Online Learning) that introduces pedagogy of online learning, instructions, strategies, best practices, etc. ...Online learning should not be a 'correspondence course' setup. It should be a very interactive experience both for the participants as well as the instructor."

Pamela Livingston is the author of 1-to-1 Learning: Laptop or Tablet Programs that Work.