A few weeks back I began a two-part series of posts responding to Francisco Dao's assertion that "online learning is a fantasty." Dao, a tech/innovation guru, argued that online courses lack the structure and interpersonal component to be effective for unmotivated learners, and will therefore be ineffective for "educating the masses" as some school reformers imagine (or as Dao seems to think some people imagine).
In my first post I concurred with some of Dao's concerns about online learning, based both on my experiences as an instructor in online classes and as a former principal who worked with at-risk high school students. But I also challenged the notion that many serious thinkers actually believe that online learning - in general - is a silver bullet for solving all the problems in 21st Century education.
Moreover, Dao doesn't ask the most basic question about unmotivated learners: why are so many unmotivated in the first place? Besides many other factors, what does the structure of schooling itself have to do with that lack of motivation?
Dao's blog post misses a fundamental point: that schooling as we know it, especially at the high school level, is possibly broken beyond repair. Or, perhaps more accurately: schooling as we know it no longer functions in any effective way for educating the vast majority of children, given our goals for education in the 21st century and the economic and moral imperative of improving student learning. We should be seeking strategies and that would help us transform the very structure of schooling rather than continue to (expensively) tinker with a system Richard Elmore has a called "a dying institution." In whatever renewed form schooling takes, technology is sure to play a key role.
As John Taylor Gatto points out, the present system of American schooling was based on an early 19th century, Prussian model that was designed to rank and sort students into effective roles for a compliant, efficient industrial workforce. To the extent that this system ever "worked" for students, it did so by standardizing learning in a way that largely brushed over, neglected, or worked around individual student differences and needs. Creativity, intuition, and especially student choice were largely ignored if not squelched outright.
The NCLB era brought a demand that all students reach proficient levels of learning (whereas the older era accepted that large percentages of students would drop out or be minimally educated), and established rigorous accountability requirements for school improvement, but preserved the industrial structure of schooling that was never intended to educate all children, while also adding an obsession with standardized tests that remain a clumsy and highly limited measure of teaching or learning.
The 21st Century economy demands a level of individualization in student learning and a focus on innovation, creativity, and human relations skills that the present structure of schooling cannot accommodate. Moreover, the 21st century digital culture means that families and students have become thoroughly accustomed to a range of individualized choices in all aspects of their life never before seen in the history of humankind. It's not just that the current structure of schooling will fail to adequately meet student needs; parents and their children will not abide by the stifling, limited, one-size-fits-all format of the traditional school.
Something will have to change in the way we "do" school, for moral, economic, political, and cultural reasons.
What will the future of schooling look like? No one can accurately predict, of course, but it's becoming increasingly clear that the future of schooling must be much more highly individualized than in the past. If we want a future generation with more capacity for critical thinking, perseverance, creativity, and collaboration, one-size-fits-all formats for schooling with fragmented, disconnected curricula must give way to approaches that emphasize student choice, self-pacing, and an integration of the academic disciplines.
Trevor Eissler and his merry band of brothers have suggested the Montessori method as one strategy for renewing the structure of public schooling, and the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector has been established as a clearinghouse for resources and information on this century-old approach to student-centered learning. The Sudbury method, pioneered at the famed Sudbury Valley School, offers an even more radically student-focused approach.
But even within the existing structure of traditional schooling meaningful innovations are emerging, like the "Independent Project" at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where students are crafting their own curriculum, assessments, and learning strategies with the support of teachers who truly function as "guides on the side."
To Francisco Dao's argument that online learning will fail to "educate the masses," at Monument Mountain, as in many other places across the country, technology is playing a key role in helping students and teachers craft new approaches to learning. In fact, the notion that students must attend a brick and mortar (government-run) building to obtain knowledge and skills is as outmoded as the factory design of schools themselves. Many states are now experimenting with "a la carte" options for student learning, heavily facilitated by technology, that allows students to supplement their education and add a high degree of flexibility and personalization to learning that doesn't necessarily mean the wholesale replacement of schools by computers.
As Sugata Mitra and Charles Leadbeater have vividly documented in their TED talks, adults grossly underestimate what students can do all by themselves given the right tools.
Ultimately, I don't believe these kinds of innovations can succeed in a system wherein the state has a total monopoly on schooling for the majority of families. Of all the structures that must change to accommodate 21st Century learning, the notion that the government can adequately plan, direct, and deliver education is perhaps the greatest, and serves as the chief obstacle to moving us forward. Meaningful structures of school choice must be developed and implemented so that a far wider range of educational options are available to families.
So is "online learning" the answer to education's ills? Certainly not, if by simply grafting online learning onto traditional notions of schooling is what we mean. But technology could play an essential role in the total transformation of schooling as we know it. And that's what all of us should be working toward.