Some people have the wrong idea about online education, and a Slate.com column – the latest in the ongoing Future Tense series – aims to set those right. One of the main misconceptions that online education providers battle constantly is that when computers and young children meet, the only result is an academic environment where impressionable eyes are locked onto a screen all day without any social contact at all.
Although the idea that online education could be viable for children as young as elementary-school age could appear obscene to some parents, for children who are surrounded by computers and gadgets like smartphones and tablets, keeping a school a computer-free zone would seem crazy. You can't expect a children to take school seriously when their school experience is completely divorced from their everyday life.
What most people envision when they think of online education—a college or high school student sitting at a computer all day at home, perhaps with minimal parental guidance—isn't viable for the vast majority of families with young kids. Warehousing is a dirty word in education circles, but the truth is that it must be part of the package. Kids need somewhere to go during the day, preferably to hang out with other kids. They also need a bunch of adults there to keep them from killing one another and help them learn something.
Still, even that kind of instructional paradigm leaves a lot of room for useful applications of technology. One of the approaches gaining popularity, and that makes good use of the traditional classroom setting, is the idea of blended learning. Although some teaching is still done in the classroom — with desks, a blackboard and a teacher playing a traditional role — the "heavy lifting" is done with online tools.
KIPP, one of the most successful chains of charter schools in the country, is currently trying just this approach. The KIPP schools credit most of their success to lavishing individualized attention on all its students and by keeping their student-teacher ratios low. In most KIPP schools, class sizes are set at no higher than 20 students.
But the typical approach hit a snag. When severe fiscal constraints forced the Los Angeles Unified School District to rejigger its charter school funding formulas, the latest KIPP charter to be opened in South Los Angeles had its budget slashed by nearly $200,000. The traditional approach of small classrooms and plenty of teachers was no longer an option, so the school decided to attempt something different.
The K-4 school, dubbed KIPP Empower (in keeping with the cheesy inspirational lexicon of the Knowledge Is Power Program family), opened its doors in 2010 with classrooms that contained 28 to 30 kindergarteners and 15 computers each. The population of the new school is pretty KIPP typical: Ninety-nine percent of the kids are black or Hispanic, and 92 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch.
This experiment in blended learning has kids rotate between computer-based lessons and those delivered by a teacher. At any one time, about half the kids are learning using a computer, which effectively reduces the number of kids that a teacher interacts with directly down to a more manageable 15.
When computers take the pressure off, not only can teachers spend more time helping kids, but kids can also help one another. Nearly everyone has had the experience of being shushed in classroom for being part of a side conversation that had a legit educational purpose. ("What was that trick again for multiplying by 9?") Blended learning makes room for some of those ordinary human interactions in a way that a command-and-control traditional classroom simply can't.