Online Instruction for K-12 (Part 1)

For those familiar with past efforts to install new technologies in schools, the many claims for online instruction transforming traditional teaching and learning in K-12 public schools either cause snickers for their hyperbole or strike a flat note in their credibility.  Consider the following answer Clayton Christensen author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Transform the Way the World Learns gave to an interviewer’s question: “Do you think that education is finally ready for the Internet?”

I absolutely do. I think that not only are we ready but adoption is occurring at a faster rate than we had thought… We believe that by the year 2019 half of all classes for grades K-12 will be taught online… The rise of online learning carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs by allowing all students to learn at their appropriate pace and path, thereby allowing each student to realize his or her fullest potential….

Such hype from academic gurus is unfortunate. Apart from mirth, they contribute to low credibility because of the history of exaggerated claims for earlier technologies (e.g., distance education, instructional television, and desktop computers) and thereby mask the complexity of online instruction. Moreover, the claims ignore differences among students who take online courses, how teachers deliver instruction, the quality of online teaching, assessments of student learning, and design of research studies.

Consider, for example, that students receiving online instruction span children of home-schoolers and those with disabilities who cannot attend school to students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate diploma program and Advanced Placement courses to those teenagers who have failed courses and sign up for credit recovery. And recently, there are now elementary schools that blend individual “learning labs” with regular classroom instruction. [i]

Web courses also differ in delivery. Some emanate from virtual schools with a curricular menu of software programs in different subjects and ones where teachers lecture and demonstrate lessons to thousands of students at one time; others are courses in which teachers hold online discussions with fifteen students in a section with periodic face-to-face contact and loads of email exchanges.

The quality of online instruction also varies. There are stars among instructors who relish the work, plan thoughtfully, and use the limited face-to-face interaction and discussion threads creatively. They offer many stories of student success. Most online teachers are hardly stars, however, yet soldier through their duties and complete assigned  tasks satisfactorily. While current technology permits online and offline discussions among students and between teacher and students, the nature of the setting nearly always results in short bursts of teacher telling, checking for understanding with multiple-choice questions, videos, YouTube segments, and bullet-point slides with students interacting later. The pedagogical epicenter of most online instruction is squarely within the teacher-centered tradition.

Then there are engaging software programs loaded with audio and video clips that take students point-by-point through carefully designed materials that can re-teach concepts and skills for students who answer questions inaccurately. For those students who master the content and sail through the quizzes, they can push ahead with advanced material.

Nor can one ignore the varied research and evaluation designs and methodologies used to assess online instruction or particulars devices (e.g., tablets, laptops, clickers)–whatever the new “new thing” is— to determine whether they have produced proficiency in knowledge and skills or gains in student test scores (or both). Horse-race type studies—is online instruction better, the same as, or worse than traditional instruction?— have been done for well over a half century and have been shown, time and again, to be flawed for not taking into consideration other factors that could explain proficiency (or lack thereof) and growth (or decline) in student achievement. In such studies key factors as the teacher’s pedagogy, students’ socioeconomic status, instructional materials, and other variables are missing. None of the foregoing, however, has stopped (or will stop) evangelists for online instruction from gathering a grab bag of defect-filled studies claiming student achievement gains.

Regardless of the quality of research on new technologies, cheerleaders continue to trumpet online learning as the “disruptive innovation” that will replace regular schools. Advocates spread the gospel of blended schools using exaggerated claims to sprinkle over holes and cracks in the innovation.  Promoters of these innovations overestimate the power of their words and underestimate the facts of variation in students, how online instruction is delivered, teaching quality, and research designs. They attribute achievement gains (or losses) to online instruction while disregarding its diversity thus contributing to romantic myths about powerful technologies solving grave problems.  Claims about online learning revolutionizing teaching and student learning are, to put it charitably, just claims.

What hangs in the air over these claims are two key questions that policymakers too often leave unanswered. Explicit and public answers to these questions could replace unexamined assertions and myths with credible arguments and facts.

1. What are the pressing problems in K-12 schools to which virtual schooling are solutions?

2.  Does online instruction work?

I answer these questions in subsequent posts.

[i] By online and blended learning I mean:

“[A] wide range of programs that use the Internet to provide instructional materials and facilitate interactions between teachers and students and in some cases among students as well. Online learning can be fully online, with all instruction taking place through the Internet, or online elements can be combined with face-to-face interactions in what is known as blended learning….”  This definition comes from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, “Understanding the Implications of Online Learning for Educational Productivity,” January 2012, p. v.

Blended learning, a combination of individual online instruction and whole or small group instruction in regular public school buildings has emerged recently in K-12, particularly in charter schools. Entrepreneurs, both for-profit and non-profit, and educators have developed various models of mixing online and direct classroom contact between teachers and students.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

32 responses to “Online Instruction for K-12 (Part 1)

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber and commented:
    Stretching criteria a bit to include a blog by a US academic, but I think this is important stuff.

  2. Important questions being asked here – look forward to reading more.

  3. In August of this year I shall be retiring from my career as an educator within the k-12 system in my province (Newfoundland Labrador, Canada). All of it has been devoted to rural schools and the past 21 years have been spent furthering eLearning for our small rural schools. (If you are interested, most of my Feb and March blog entries were devoted to documenting much of that.) I have learned quite a few lessons along the way and, perhaps I might summarize a few here–with your permission, of course:
    1. Success depends on many factors working together. All of these must be in place and working: trained, devoted teachers, well-designed and reliable back-end systems, earnest and engaged students (some come to the system because mom or dad dragged them there–that fails), well-designed courses, suitable equipment and connectivity, learner and technical support.
    2. The focus has to be on the learner. Here’s the acid test to see if it is: ask the instructor or administrator this question, “What will you do if a student is not achieving success in your course?” As far as I am concerned there is only one right answer that indicates learner focus (and I’d be happy to share it with you).
    3a. A reliance on one type of course content means that the course will only appeal to one type of learner. The teaching and learning strategies have to be varied, just the same as any other class. I say this because many eLearning materials tend to be only text or only video. How silly.
    3b. Successful courses will include a wide variety of activities that encourage active participation and care must be taken to ensure that all activities are aligned with the curriculum outcomes (this is often not the case–courses often contain a lot of cool-looking busywork. …just like a face-to-face course.
    4. Communication is key. Thus includes not only frequent communication between the teacher and learners, but also between learners and, of course, with parents/guardians.
    5. …and everyone is welcome to disagree with this, but my opinion will not change :>) Synchronous time with the instructor is important for most students if you expect them to complete the course. Sure, many online schools certify MANY students but what you never hear about is that many, many students who start asynchronous courses never finish. This, in my book, is unacceptable. Online courses need to expect the same completion rates as do face-to-face ones. Think about it: Joey starts the course and checks out the work for week one and figures he’ll do that later. In week two he has a fair bit of work from other courses (with F2F teachers nagging him) and, so decides to give that work priority. By week three poor old Joey is hopelessly behind and all he has going for him is (maybe) a few emails or system alerts from his instructor. By week four, with the first online quiz looming Joey bails… If Joey had to face his teacher live in week one he would have been called to task. Just saying :>)
    6. If quality, completion rates and achievement are what matters (DUH!!!) then eLearning will not save money. eLearning should be about offering quality alternatives to F2F when needed and not about saving money (or making it, depending on your point of view).

    • larrycuban

      I wish you well in your retirement, hoping that you will continue to comment as you have done on many posts. I read your recent entries on the glossary of online instruction–eLearning–and what you have learned and also are willing to predict. I will get to your February and March entries. I appreciate your insights gained from working in rural areas where eLearning becomes an important access point for students and adults. Thank you.

      • No worries. I enjoy my visits here, besides, “it” is not like a lightbulb and I won’t be able to turn it off. :>) Later on the fall I’ll likely seek a similar line of work; a new journey!

      • larrycuban

        “Retirement” is a placeholder term that makes it easy for others to put you into a compartment. You will figure out what to do and what that is that will give you satisfaction, Maurice.

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  5. John Concilus

    I like way you have broken down the two essential questions, Larry, and agree that you are exploring the right ones. I have supervised distance learning in a large district for about 12 years now, and been active as a planning team member in state efforts to structure, build and improve distance learning offerings. I belong to the various associations, and attend and have presented at the iNACOL and COSN national conferences on distance learning related topics.

    The main thing that is rarely asked by “advocates” or vendors is your first one: What is the pressing problem that distance learning solves in the K-12 space? Until you answer that, all the products and delivery models in a pile are technologies in search of a problem to solve. The problem should drive the technology, not the other way around.

    Distance learning offers real promise for broadening existing course offerings and learning experiences for brick and mortar schools, as well as allowing teachers to “blend” instruction, improve teacher-to-student communication and feedback routines and assignment personalization, and to enhance the regular classroom experience in many ways.

    However, I don’t believe that distance learning at the K-12 level should or could replace all the aspects of what “schooling” is to a child…unless that is the very problem it is solving. Remote locations exist that are too small for a school, there are students who can’t belong to a regular school for various logistical reasons, parental belief preferences or medical issues. There are also some specialized types of schooling and training for which the economics of making available local, brick and mortar options for that content is not practical. So, “virtual schools” can expect to continue to find some customers. But, in all these cases the technology involved is solving specific problems, not trying replace schooling with a virtual experience. Nothing about distance learning makes it BETTER than an effective real teacher in real time.

    • Sandy

      The Commonwealth of Virginia’s School Board has mandated yet another new graduation requirement: all high school students must take an online course in order to graduate. This is, naturally, an unfunded mandate. There has been a VA Virtual for many years now. Students have taken Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, because we can’t offer it locally. APS also employs distance learning through point-to-point video so it can offer higher end Calculus in all 3 high schools. In addition, recovery courses for non-traditional students are being accessed. I point this all out to indicate that the first question you raise is answerable for these purposes. But there is NO logic behind making an online course required for everyone. I need only point out that K-12 Inc is a Virginia company to know the why behind this. That said, Carroll County, VA announced that it is closing it’s virtual school citing difficulty sorting out special ed. accommodations, government compliance and verifying residency:

      As to your second question, I don’t know that there’s a answer because I don’t think that’s the point. I look forward to your next post.

      • larrycuban


        Thanks for bringing me and readers up to date on the Virginia graduation requirement. I do wonder what problem the online mandated course solves. And thanks for mentioning the closing of the virtual school in Carroll County (VA).

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, John, for responding to the first question I raised and your comments on technology vis-a-vis problems. Your experiences over a long period of time give heft to your remarks.

  6. Steve Davis

    One of the main problems that online education promises to “solve” in urban areas is reducing the bottom line expenses for district and states. It’s no secret that education budgets eat a lion’s share of many state budgets (esp. CA’s), and the majority of state education budgets go to instructors. Dress it up anyway you want, and the push for online learning still boils down to saving dollars.

  7. harrykeller

    Online learning resources will continue to grow in number and quality. I sincerely hope that schools and educators can evaluate them well. From what I’ve seen, one problem we have with these resources is that these people are incapable of adequate evaluation. Before the Internet, many schools ended up with large purchases of “shelfware.”

    I am a provider of online learning resources, specifically the world’s only online hands-on science labs. I have been working with my colleagues to refine and improve our offerings for over ten years. We’ve delivered nearly one million of our experiment-centered, inquiry-based activities now.

    I’m a scientist, trained at Caltech and Columbia University, and a former university professor of chemistry. I see competing products that use simulations and shudder. Yet, schools buy these without truly considering anything but attempts to raise their test scores. If that’s all they care about, they should dump labs entirely and put in lots of drill — all you have to do to pass those tests.

    If you care about educating your students too, then you should consider online resources that can do both. Recently, an AP Chemistry teacher remarked to us that he had done the usual wet labs for years and tried the online simulations. When he used our system, he told us, his students experienced real learning for the first time. In another school, the state science test pass rate was 50%. The poverty rate was 60%. Adding our system as homework (online, often in the after-hours school library) improved that pass rate by 1/3 to 66%.

    You can pass those tests in two ways. The first is to memorize everything and focus on test-taking skills. The second is to understand the subject and appreciate, even enjoy, it. Both work. The second is greatly preferred over the first, IMHO.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Harry, for taking the time to comment on your work with online instruction and the devilish problem of evaluating science software.

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  11. Melissa Hayden

    Very interesting reading and great points that were addressed. As an educator the question is not if teachers/students are ready, but is society willing to change?

  12. Culham B Amengor

    Enjoyed reading this piece.

  13. On line instruction was an unprecendented opportunity or requirement several years ago, however, it is no longer an unprecedented requirement. In fact, many schools have academic requirements or classs on line. I believe on line classes can work, but it requires an educational culture change

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for your comment, Tony.

      • harrykeller

        1. What are the pressing problems in K-12 schools to which virtual schooling are solutions?

        2. Does online instruction work?

        These are important questions today. The answer to the second is a qualified yes. I’m very interested in expert opinions on the first.

        What are today’s most pressing K-12 problems? Which can be solved by online instruction? We have graduation rates, lack of literacy and numeracy, and a common belief among many students that their courses are “useless.” Online resources have the potential to impact all of these, but the usual online resource uses Internet technology poorly.

        Online instruction means a host of things from an occasional foray into Internet research to 100% online courses. Some students deal better with online instruction than others. (Same for teachers.) Online instruction should work. Poor training, motivation, quality of resources, and infrastructure may stand in the way.

      • larrycuban

        Thank you for taking the time to comment, Harry.

  14. Kelly Pyper

    1. What are the pressing problems in K-12 schools to which virtual schooling are solutions? We have 2 on-line schools here in Craig, Colorado. The schools work OK for students that can be disciplined and do the work as need. When talking to one of the advisers at a conference 2 weeks ago she said that they are trying to find real life activities for students, such as going on field trips to culinary schools. She that hands on activities are definitely a problem and our students are loosing interest. By the time a student gets into 9-12th grades they are struggling to sit in classes and stay engaged throughout the day. That is just one of the reasons that parents enroll their kids in on-line classes along with money issues. It is cheaper.
    2. Does online instruction work? I believe that it works for those that have devoted parents that have the time to help students with classes and are very supportive. I believe that there are those students that can and want to excel at a faster rate. We always have the exception. I have seen many of our students leave to the schools and then end up coming back to our schools and wasting all that time and get farther behind in school. It makes me sad in those instances. There is no one set guideline.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Kelly, for commenting on the post and describing what you have seen and experienced with students who have attended two online schools.

    • harrykeller

      Thank you Kelly. You describe mostly what is in the present. The capability exists to make online education much more so that all students can benefit.

      Limiting online education to students with discipline or with supportive parents makes no sense given what can be done. I’m aware that we’re not there yet. As soon as students are more excited about learning online than playing video games or texting their friends, then we’ll be there.

      Learning, truly learning, is more exciting than any game. Most courses simply don’t provide this experience. Someday, online education will.

      The purpose of a game is diversion and socialization. It’s about relaxation and not about heavy mental lifting. (Yes, I know that some people treat games such as bridge and chess so seriously that they’re not at all relaxing, but most do not.)

      Learning is about expanding your scope, your reach, and your capabilities. It builds a sort of freedom that can be exhilarating. Unfortunately for too many, learning is drudgery, a chore that you just try to get done as quickly as possible and forget just as fast. The traditional learning mode of a group of students learning the exact same things at exactly the same pace and in the same way turns this thrilling experience to ashes.

      The great thing about online learning is that it has the potential to change all of that, to alter the education landscape so enormously that our descendants will wonder how anyone learned anything “way back then.”

      So, while I agree that online learning works for a subset of our learners, that subset will expand until it encompasses everyone, including adult learners.

      I also believe that this change will happen faster than any but the most extreme optimists expect.

  15. Kids need less isolation and more positive interaction and intrinsic motivation from a warm smile and high five from a human teacher that is a warm and personal face to face praise. A welcoming teacher in person that not even a video can give this kind of motivation for learning and zill for life that a student needs. This is even more needed when parents
    ts are gone working and they feel alone.

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