Online Schooling Has Promise, But Doubts Remain

According to Bryan Hassel, the co-director of Public Interest, as online education becomes more widely available, one of its prime benefits is not being talked about at all. When enrolling their children in a school, the parents will maneuver to place them in the classroom of that one great educator who has a great reputation for getting the best out of his pupils. Unfortunately, the class size limit mean only a few succeed in their mission. But once the school rolls out an online-learning tool, the physical room size is no longer a barrier, and students not only in the school itself, but all over the country, and even the world can study with the teacher they choose. Furthermore, with students “attending” the class from outside the school building, the teacher is relieved of the non-instructional responsibilities like classroom management and behavior monitoring and can concentrate solely on instruction. Leaving aside all the other considerations, what really makes online education such a revolutionary step, Hassel enthuses, is it allows school districts to identify the best teachers and then extend their reach around the world.

Although schools that teach K-12 are slow to explore the potential of online learning, citing concerns such as cost of implementation, some higher education institutions are already leading the way. One of the first off the start line was the technological collegiate powerhouse Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It has an excellent reputation for the quality of its academic programs, and until last year, students who wished to take advantage of their stellar offerings and top-notch faculty needed to hurdle both the tough admissions process and expensive tuition bill.

That changed, however, with the launch of MITx which offers courses that are taught by the school’s professors, are free and available online to anyone in the world with an internet connection. The pilot MITx course “6.002x Circuits and Electronics” which began in December of last year attracted over 90,000 students. The course was modeled on one of the introductory traditional computer science courses offered to undergraduates and used videotaped lectures as well as digitally graded assignments to communicate the material. Those who finished the course got no college credit but received a certificate of completion mailed to them. The current plan is to extend the course offerings for the second round of the pilot which is scheduled to begin later this year.

Still, the level of skepticism for online schooling remains high. Last week, during the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s panel on Education Reform for a Digital Era, Emory University Professor Mark Bauerlein explained why he was generally bearish on initiatives to meld technology and education. One of the greatest obstacles to the success of such endeavors might be the social pushback from students who have grown to think of gadgetry as a tool of entertainment and diversion and might have problems taking lessons given over a computer as seriously as those held in a traditional classroom. Furthermore, such abrupt changes might present serious problems for older teachers who might not ever feel as comfortable with the use of technology after many years’ of traditional teaching experience.

Bauerlein added that the important thing is to allow schools, who, after all, know their students best, to figure out how best to integrate technology into their classrooms rather than preempt their efforts via regulations or legislation.