What Critical Problems in K-12 Schools Does Online Instruction Solve? (Part 2)

K-12 online instruction attracts policy-inclined school reformers and reform-minded policymakers because it appears as a technological and inexpensive solution for serious problems at a time when public schools are viewed as a double failure: in urban districts where largely poor and minority youth get a third-rate education and many suburban and rural schools that fall short of producing skilled and knowledgeable graduates who can contribute to a strong, competitive global economy.

Here is a brief list of those problems that promoters say will get solved through virtual instruction.

* Traditional whole-class instruction. Teaching lessons to the whole group of 25-30 students at one time generation after generation has resulted in tedium and boredom for students who already know the content or are too far behind to grasp the lesson. It has been difficult for teachers with these size classes and district and state requirements to cover the curriculum to hit the sweet spot of learning that brings all students along at the same time.

With online instruction, lessons finally become individualized. Online instruction and blended learning provide “differentiated instruction” that can take each student from where he or she is and go to where each one can be–the Holy Grail pedagogical reformers have sought for generations. Moreover, these technological innovations permit some regular classroom teachers to “flip” their lessons. That is, at home students see teacher lectures or go through online programs and then come to class where teachers help individuals and small groups work through difficulties in understanding the lesson strengthening critical thinking, analytic, and problem solving skills.

*Disengaged and underachieving students. Online courses and blended learning will motivate individual students to work harder, gain more knowledge and skills, and embrace learning. Engaged students will achieve higher grades and graduate high school. Online instruction will bring such student up to speed in knowledge and skills necessary to finish academic courses and enter college or careers in a highly competitive global economy.

*Disconnect from world of work. Current content and skills taught in academic subjects seldom have real-world connections. Moreover, while high-tech devices continue to spread in schools, student use is often restricted to low-level tasks hardly tapping the enormous information and communication power of these devices. With digital competence expected of anyone working in an information-based economy, students graduate unprepared for the labor market. Taking online instruction regularly will close the gap between what schools offer, what students do in daily lessons, and what youth will face when they graduate, advocates say.

Rising cost of schooling children and youth;  The single largest item in K-12 budgets are salaries for classroom teachers. Because virtual schools, cyber-charters, and blended schools hire fewer teachers, average expenses for online schooling comes in lower than costs for operating regular age-graded schools. The national average expenditure for instruction in regular schools runs around $10,000. Costs for virtual schools range between $5100 to $7700 and for blended schools $7600 to $10,200. While there are dueling studies over costs among policy advocates and opponents, few would question that online instruction is cheaper than providing a teacher for every class in an age-graded school .

Those promoting online instruction, then, pitch this instructional approach as solving heretofore intractable problems. It is an idea, they say, whose time has come.

Yet, amid reform-driven policymakers’ enthusiasm for virtual learning and widespread expansion of online instruction across the U.S. in the past decade, is the nagging question that drives many policymakers and educational leaders bonkers. Even with all of the hype for online instruction being “revolutionary” and “transformational” in teaching and learning, school board members, superintendents, parents, and media journalists still ask: What does the research say about whether we should invest in virtual learning? Which brings me to the second question: Does online instruction work?
I answer this in Part 3.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

20 responses to “What Critical Problems in K-12 Schools Does Online Instruction Solve? (Part 2)

  1. Lynn

    Well, we must be doing something wrong then. Our public school offers online and blended learning as supplemental options for students, and we are spending a lot of money to provide professional development, course development stipends, and summer teaching pay. Cost savings? Hardly. Replacing teachers? Not even close.

    What’s more interesting is that our teachers are reporting that designing online instruction has made them a better classroom teacher, too.

    Maybe you’re generalizing that all online supporters are one in the same, the same type of over-generalization that causes traditional teaching to be viewed as everything online learning is not. Why does it have to be either/or? Can’t we accept that both online and face-to-face learning have their place in education, and our focus should be not on the superior method. Rather, how we can integrate both to make learning relevant and effective for students?

    I’ll be eager to see your part III. Maybe I’ll be surprised to see something that is positive about all the hard work we’ve been doing in the online world.

    • Lynn

      Just saw your Part I. Should’ve read that first before I commented, so I apologize. So clearly you have an understanding of the complexities, and I’m glad you were able to point out the spectrum of online. We care so much about the quality of the content we create and the quality of our teaching. To be lumped in the same category with all the credit-mill online schools, well, it just stinks. Many online educators doing in the “right” way are feeling hopeless because the world is too quick to put down our contributions. So jumping into a post like Part 2 gives the haters just more fuel to discredit the work we do. That is: Trying to create a new name for online education because there really are pockets of success I hope we can celebrate.

    • larrycuban

      You raise important points, Lynn, thanks for doing that.

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  3. Larry, I am enjoying this post and your previous one, but I think this post is missing a critical problem that online courses solve. That problem is what the Christensen Institute calls “non-consumption,” or what we see in our work as all the situations where students in rural or inner-city schools do not have the same educational opportunities as students in affluent suburban districts. For example, in my home state of Colorado, students in the small districts of the mountains and eastern plains don’t have access to advanced placement courses, advanced math, a variety of world languages (sometimes none at all), electives, etc. In California years ago an online AP course program was created in response to a lawsuit making the case that students’ access to AP courses was unequal across the state. Some of the largest public online providers, such as the Florida Virtual School and Michigan Virtual School, and others that are large relative to the state student population, such as Idaho Digital Learning, were created to address this need.

    A second category is the niche being filled by fully online charter schools, addressing the variety of needs of students who feel that their local school is not providing what they need, for any of a number of reasons.

    The number of students in these categories is small, but not trivial, and these types of schools are driving much of the innovation in online learning.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, John, or the comment. I should have made the point more clearly of online courses providing access for those who cannot find places to study and learn subjects and skills they seek.

  4. This seems to me to be the most important question we can ask about any instructional technique: “Does [it] work?”

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber and commented:
    Possibly a bit off-topic for this blog, abut as I reblogged part 1 I feel obliged to keep going.

  6. PAR

    There are two problems online education is trying to solve that aren’t mentioned here. One I think it is already solving, the second it cannot solve alone but may be ideally situated to contribute to the solution:
    The first is the problem of scale: When schools are bound by time and place, getting the curriculum and instruction a student needs right now is difficult, if not impossible. But online we can deliver AP Physics and Chinese language instruction to students who in sparsely populated rural areas and urban areas that cannot attract the necessary teachers. And online students do not have to be limited to 44 minutes of math Monday through Friday between 8am and 3pm. This is something that all schools can and should to learn how to do, but have not.
    The second is the problem of efficiency, but not as you’ve defined it: The “cost” of high quality instruction (and other services delivered by people) continues to rise relative to the costs of “stuff” in our economy, and personalization that relies only on people isn’t likely to get radically more efficient, so there are limits to how much more can be done the current way without substantial increases in spending. Good online schools already spend a higher percentage of their funds on curriculum, instructional resources, and technology so they have somewhat less to spend on teachers – student:teacher ratios are higher than those of traditional school districts. Despite that, many families report more personalization from online schools than their students were getting in their traditional public schools. Online teachers can do that because the curriculum, instructional resources, and technology are designed for students to be able to navigate the basics of their courses on their own, freeing teachers up to evaluate student progress and intervene to help students where they are struggling. You’re right that teacher-centered pedagogy is still too dominant, but there IS a shift happening in good online schools that is important.
    Good online schools are well positioned to make further progress on the problem of efficiency – to in fact harness the evolution of technology to continually improve personalization and its efficiency until the “2 Sigma Problem” (Bloom 1984) can finally be solved roughly within existing resource constraints (assuming enough scale to support required capital investment and allowing for normal cost increases). This is true because online schools have technology platforms that harness a tremendous amount of data as a by-product of normal student and teacher tasks in the teaching and learning processes. In traditional schools, there is relatively little “data” captured about teachers’ teaching and students’ learning activities. But online schools know when students log in, how long they stay logged in, how quickly they click through lessons, how long they spend on tests. As technology improves, it will be possible to analyze that data and use it to provide information teachers can use to personalize, and ultimately to automate the personalization process. Nobody’s there yet, obviously. Yes, it’s a “big data” argument and I’m fully aware that hype often outstrips (current) progress. But I think it’s also true that we overestimate change in the short run, but underestimate change in the long run.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting. Access and scale are important points that you raise. I should include them as online solutions to problems in regular U.S. public schools. Online instruction can produce sufficient data, you argue, to make teaching and learning personal, high quality, and efficient in more than just dollars-and-cents.

      You end by saying: “As technology improves, it will be possible to analyze that data and use it to provide information teachers can use to personalize, and ultimately to automate the personalization process.” “Automate the personalization process”–Whoa! Did you mean that? Are voice recognition systems used by airlines, utilities, etc. that ask you questions and sound chirpy on the phone what you mean by “automat[ing} the personalization process?” I surely hope not. Telemedicine, use of Skype, and face-to-face contact, even if remote, might be what you mean. I am uncertain.

      • PAR

        Thank you for pointing out and allowing me to clarify “automate the personalization process.” Educators seek for students to own their own learning, partly because that’s the goal, and partly because it frees them to “add value” in more powerful ways – to push students “up” Bloom’s taxonomy for example. We want students to learn to read so they can read to learn, and come to class prepared to discuss what they have read.

        Technology offers tools to support this process. Automated essay scoring tools can help students improve their grammar and structure, so that writing teachers can focus on content, voice, etc. “Drill” software and, increasingly, simulation tools provide feedback on where students are struggling, feedback that can support better targeted instructional intervention. We’ve all seen great coaching: Early elementary teachers who can infer from students’ creative spelling exactly which phonetics issues need remediation, music teachers who can offer a single specific tweak to drumstick positioning or a trombonist’s embouchure, etc. “Automated personalization” means (to me) increasingly sophisticated feedback from automated systems to help students own their own improvement and to help all teachers be better at identifying the most fruitful coaching interventions. Indeed, I see the teaching role (which will be more important than ever) to finally truly evolve into the “guide on the side” role, supported by tools that make them more productive. This is what I mean by “automating” the personalization process.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for clarifying what you meant by the phrase “automate the personalization process.” This has been a perpetual goal of teaching and learning in age-graded schools for over a century and with recent advances in communication and information technologies, many believe that teaching role can “truly evolve into the ‘guide on the side.'” I do not.

  7. Robert Rendo

    Technology is never a panacea, and its misuse is counterproductive in education. It is the judicious application and use of technology that can faciliate learning and teaching for the better, but the review of such usage should always be subject to scrutiny and critical thinking.

    Technology is still the creation of man, and man is still in control of the humanism between student and teacher. This was not the case in AI, the brilliant poetic parable from Stephen Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, one of my favorite films of all times.

    But as educators, we must always strive to make technology serve us and our students and never the other way around.

  8. Steve Davis

    RE: Disengaged and underachieving students
    Asked three students that just graduated yesterday if they knew anyone that had payed someone else to take their online class for them. They quickly responded that they had been approached by students at other schools to take classes for them, particularly math classes.

  9. barbara kearney

    always a possibility that students won’t put forth the effort, but I’d also like to comment that the common core and the 21st century skills that have become the new educational buzz words, SCREAM Family and Consumer Sciences curriculum….and yet…these are the very programs being slashed!

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