A Classroom of One
How Online Learning is Changing our Schools and Colleges
By Gene I. Maeroff
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2003 Gene I. Maeroff
All rights reserved.
AN INVITATION TO A REVOLUTION
Mark Hopkins, first a memorable teacher and then a president of Williams College during the nineteenth century, inspired a vision of perfect education based on his reputation for instructional prowess—a log with Hopkins, the exemplary teacher, sitting on one end and a student sitting on the other. This ideal, a classroom of one, seems to be an icon for the technological age, except for one aspect. It places teacher and student in face-to-face proximity, eyeballs to eyeballs, a not wholly apt symbol for a time when hundreds, if not thousands, of miles may separate teacher and student, their contact mediated by a pair of keyboards and monitor screens.
Yet, with the aid of technology, wide-range one-on-one education may be closer at hand than ever before. An encounter between student and teacher via the Internet is very different from the exchanges in formal classrooms that have until now characterized education. This fulfillment of the classroom of one embodies an intimacy all its own. Such a shift does not signify an end to education as it has existed but the coming of a paradigm in which a course offered to a classroom full of students may be less compelling than it has been. The question is not whether formal learning will continue—of course it will—but what forms it will take among a multiplicity of possibilities. E-learning has come on the scene to augment and sometimes supplant the traditional classroom.
Technology's potential for strengthening instruction in the traditional classroom remains enormous. This is not a book about using computers in classrooms, though. Instead, it examines a revolution that gives signs of driving a portion of education out of schools and colleges. It considers the implications for the classroom when technology delivers education from a distance, creating settings in which individual students sometimes learn on their own, not sitting amid classmates, not in the presence of teachers. By 2001, more than 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States offered at least some virtual courses; one-third of those institutions were community colleges. Moreover, a growing number of classroom-based courses included online portions that personalized education in new ways.
The swiftness with which online learning gained significance in higher education during the last decade of the twentieth century can be seen in a review of the news coverage at the turn of 1990. E-learning was scarcely mentioned in an article about distance learning in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the field's paper of record, on September 27, 1989. The piece described mostly courses offered by correspondence and public television, with some mention of independent study, tutorial software, and audiotapes. It barely referred to computer links. It spoke of faculty members not wanting to teach such courses as they could not see if students were absorbing the material. The article nonetheless contained praise for the motivation and persistence of distance education students. There was no hint of the avalanche that was about to rumble.
Developments in online learning in just a little more than ten years force one to conclude that this is a sea change, not a fad. By the end of the twenty-first century's first decade, e-learning will be an embedded feature of education, widely available and no longer an object of controversy. Whether it will be a source of financial gain, as some for-profit providers hope, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, online courses will proliferate at traditional not-for-profit institutions, and students will have far more opportunity to choose between studying in a classroom with other students or in a virtual classroom in which they work alone. Almost certainly, most courses—including the vast majority in classrooms—at most institutions of higher education and to a lesser extent in secondary schools will have online components as essential features. Instructors who in coming years ignore the potential of web-based embellishments will be as remiss as their peers of past years who did not expect students to enrich their learning by consulting sources beyond their books.
Some see as most important in these developments the emergence of technology as a prime tool of learning. This, in the final analysis, will be incidental. Technology's role will be an enabling one, as printing presses have been to the production of books. Online education is here to stay and the technology will fade into the background for most students, essential but not of great concern to them, a kind of catalyst to a learning revolution. We fly without worrying about what keeps airplanes aloft. We reap the benefits of magnetic imaging without knowing how radiologists can peer into our bodies without cutting them open. We watch television with no comprehension of how the pictures get onto the screens in our living rooms. And, increasingly, we will take online courses for granted, as if they have always existed, and pay little heed to what makes a classroom of one possible.
Much that is happening in the delivery of learning threatens the hegemony of the traditional approach. Higher education will transform itself most, but secondary schools too will change and, to a lesser extent, even elementary education. The Internet ranks among the most formidable foes ever to confront the intransigence of traditional education. Despite an inclination to think of online learning in terms of profits for providers, there is no reason why the nonprofit sector, which provides most of the formal education in this country, cannot expand its offerings in distance education. Such a shift will require the vision of educators in public school systems and at nonprofit colleges and universities who recognize that education can be education regardless of its form of delivery.
Traditional educational institutions are apt to dominate online learning. They have the infrastructure and the reputations upon which to install a new delivery system for a product that has been their stock in trade: education. Online courses will simply be one more way to provide learning. The future of online learning, both for-profit and not-for-profit, is taking shape along these lines:
1. virtual schools and colleges that exist wholly online, operating without campuses;
2. brick-and-mortar educational institutions that offer a growing number of courses entirely online but at which most classes continue to meet in person;
3. brick-and-mortar educational institutions that offer few courses entirely online but with web-based features in an increasing number of campus-based courses.
What has developed, courtesy of the Internet, is the possibility of offering learning on a scale more far-reaching than previously imagined. Building on distance education that once comprised correspondence, audio, and video, online learning adds such twists as web pages, e-messages, and discussion boards to let students pursue certificates and even degrees from computers in their homes and offices. The push to breach classroom walls has accelerated and will continue unabated during the remaining years of the opening decade of the twenty-first century. These programs, with their ability to transcend state lines and even national borders, circumvent geographic barriers that were often used in the past to protect campus-based education from competition.
The development of online learning fits comfortably within the philosophy of those who preach that education should move toward a free-market approach. The more that choice is injected into the system, advocates reason, the richer the offerings and the greater the benefits to consumers (students and their families). It is the familiar let-them-vote-with-their-feet argument. Choice is the order of the day, especially in elementary and secondary education.
Charter schools began operating at the start of the 1990s and spread through the country by the end of the decade. In just a decade, 2,372 charter schools were established to serve elementary and secondary students in 34 states. These schools, funded by tax dollars, have leeway to innovate and to break with the status quo. This autonomy liberates them from many district and state regulations on the assumption that, unfettered, they can provide children with an education superior to that available in other public schools. Critics charge that the result is merely a loss of public oversight for schools that have not proved themselves to be any better than other public schools.
The idea of choice has now been joined to the possibilities of the Internet. Proponents of choice took advantage of charter school laws to establish cyber schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania, for instance. Online learning injects fresh possibilities into the most extreme version of choice, school vouchers, raising the possibility of awarding vouchers to be spent for online education, including education of a private and sectarian nature that can be carried out at home.
Benefits at the Elementary and Secondary Levels
Online learning may turn out to be the greatest bonus ever for home schooling. It eases the way for parents who want to educate their children at home. Policymakers do not ordinarily regard home schooling as a form of public school choice, but that is exactly what it could become with the aid of online programs. More and more, e-learning and home schooling—sometimes religiously inspired—combine forces under the banner of choice as officials designate virtual schools as charters. This twist lets parents who school their children at home turn to cyber schools to secure public funds for their endeavor. The number of children involved in home schooling is large and expanding rapidly. A survey released in 2001 by the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 850,000 children were schooled at home.
Julie E. Young, executive director of the Florida Virtual School, saw her institution as "an absolute boon to home schooling" and said she saw no reason why the state should not help families who opt to pull their children out of the public schools and educate them at home. "From a citizen's perspective, not speaking as an educator," she said, "the state should do all it can to embrace home schooling and to make sure that these children get the same quality of education as in a school."
Cyber schools sprouted throughout Pennsylvania at the start of this century, and home schoolers apparently constituted a substantial portion of the enrollment. A survey by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association found that almost half the students enrolled in one of the state's biggest cyber charter schools were home schoolers. There were seven such schools in the state by 2002 and others preparing to open. All of these schools operated under Pennsylvania's charter school act, which enabled individual public school districts and intermediate regional school units to grant charters.
The Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Midland, a town near the intersection of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, had 529 students its first year and doubled its enrollment to about 1,100 by its second year. The town of Midland's entire population was 3,300, so the only way that the school could grow so large was to enroll students from throughout the state, taking youngsters from 105 school systems in 23 counties. The state school boards association said that only 11 of Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School's students lived in the chartering district. Students, ranging from kindergarten to twelfth grade, chose courses from nine different curriculums. Home schoolers in Pennsylvania's cyber schools, just as students in all of the state's public schools, had to have 900 hours annually of instruction at the elementary level and 990 hours at the secondary level. Furthermore, the cyber schools, along with brick-and-mortar charter schools, had to meet state regulations that included annual reporting on educational and financial matters. The instructional methods at Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, depending on the courses, took four main forms:
1. real-time, online, synchronous instruction, in which students communicated with teachers from their computers as the teachers taught the lessons;
2. asynchronous instruction in which students worked on their own and later received messages on their computers from the teachers;
3. web-based, packaged programs consisting of a pretest, a tutorial, a practice, and a post-test that the student submitted electronically, without contact with teachers;
4. traditional book-based courses in which students, working online at a pace that they set for themselves, got assignments, turned them in, and received responses from teachers.
State-supported home schooling as provided through e-learning will probably benefit from the favorable ruling in 2002 by the U.S. Supreme Court on vouchers, which represent one of the great polarizing issues in American elementary and secondary education. Cyber schooling could be a route to public funding to enable children at home—not in a school building—to get the education of their choice, even if what they study in the privacy of their homes has a religious slant. Most families throughout the country will almost certainly maintain their allegiance to brick-and-mortar schools but, nonetheless, online learning could make inroads among the 53 million children who study at the elementary and secondary levels. Such fears invoked bitter opposition to cyber charter schools in such states as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the legality of the schools was challenged in lawsuits.
Restrictions in Higher Education Choice
At first blush it appears that higher education is already replete with choice and that a free market flourishes among postsecondary institutions. The United States boasts a panoply of 9,619 postsecondary institutions, 4,182 of them traditional, degree-granting, two-year and four-year colleges and universities under both public and private auspices, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The remaining 5,437 are post–high school vocational and technical institutes, more than 90 percent of them operated for profit. Despite this array of institutions, choice in higher education has been restricted largely to a mode of delivery that requires students to attend courses in person. In addition, until recently, as was formerly true of the nation's banking system, degree-granting institutions operated mostly within certain geographic locales and had to turn somersaults to offer courses away from their principal campuses. This was especially the case when they sought to cross state lines.
Less than a generation ago, the institution now known as Nova Southeastern University was treated as a pariah in some places when it tried to offer nontraditional programs outside its home state of Florida. Nova hoped to compete for students who wanted graduate degrees in education by establishing learning centers in several states. Students could attend these centers perhaps one weekend a month and a few weeks during the summer while writing theses that drew on their experiences in the full-time jobs in schools in which they continued to work. Nova carried out contentious but ultimately successful campaigns to win approval in several states, but New Jersey balked. New Jersey's recalcitrance meant that educators from that state had to drive to Pennsylvania or Delaware to join one of the official study clusters through which the university offered its peripatetic course work. However, some New Jerseyans, like clandestine revolutionaries, stubbornly met at locations within the state to pursue the Nova program, defying officials. New Jersey's Department of Education, outraged by the obstinate educators, sent a cease and desist letter to Nova in 1974 that contained the delicious phrase "under no circumstances shall any learning take place in the State of New Jersey."
Echoes of this attitude were heard in China in the 1990s, when the government exiled Wang Dan, a leader of the Tiananmen Square protest. A pretext for his banishment was his enrollment in a correspondence course offered by a school in California, behavior that was characterized by the government as evidence that he was plotting to overthrow the government. Some opponents of online learning in the United States see as no less conspiratorial the conduct of institutions that want to offer online courses to students scattered over wide areas. Perhaps this practice is subversive in that it seeks to overthrow a system that until now has been as unresponsive to the needs of learners as it chooses to be.
No longer will traditionalists so easily block competition when an institution can deliver courses by the Internet, silently and possibly without need to seek approval, though some states continue to try to regulate online learning transmitted from other states to their residents. Such attitudes smack of trying to keep people from tuning their radio dials to out-of-state stations, something like the policies of totalitarian countries that electronically jammed the broadcasts of Radio Free Europe. Change is in the air, though, and opposition to online learning shows signs of yielding. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Classroom of One by Gene I. Maeroff. Copyright © 2003 Gene I. Maeroff. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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