Monday, June 2, 2008

Getting Schooled Online

Teachers! Beware of the Internet - you could lose your job! This sounds like the same kind of propaganda that one might have heard when Babbage's Difference Engine was set to take over all counting-related jobs on the planet. This summer I've decided to do screen recordings of all my in-class software demos in PhotoShop, Flash, and Dreamweaver. Besides being immortalized in poorly scripted videos, I see the following advantages:
  • Students can access the demos at any time
  • Staff members can also use them to learn
  • Interested students can move at their own pace
  • I don't have to teach the same demo, over and over again, during my lunch period

My favorite of these is obviously the eatin' vs. teachin' benefit. It's a little frightening to realize how much of what I teach can be handled online. Recently, my students wrote about what an online high school experience would be like. Most of them said they would enjoy the flexibility and self-paced structure that the Internet provides, but many believed that traditional schools provided socialization - which they deemed just as important to the knowledge and skills gained during high school. Curiously, out of about 150 students, not one of them mentioned the need for a teacher. Hmmm... I'm sure this is just youthful oversight. Or is it?

Yes, I believe that teachers are needed. Primarily because I've taught many students who possess learning styles that are not compatible with the online world. They need human interaction to progress. But what about those students who can learn online? For years MIT has been offering free (FREE!) online courses of over 1800 classes through the MIT Open Courseware site! That's pretty amazing. Why take classes from your assigned "teacher" when you can choose from the brilliant minds at MIT! Also, I would recommend checking out the OpenCourseWare Consortium - a fascinating effort to share educational content using an open-source model.

I think a complimentary online high school model could be a great asset for high school students, as long as we could somehow assess authentic learning, which is no small feat. If the past is any indicator, our high schools will continue to be challenged by lower operating budgets. The economies of scale will lead to innovative but less human approaches to learning. I can easily see a model where I teach on two high school campuses simultaneously via a 2-way video conferencing device and a large projection screen. I would physically switch classrooms from week to week, and student work would be submitted and assessed via email and the web. This has been happening for years in post-secondary institutions, so it seems inevitable. It could be cool, as long as they can find some poor soul to keep students from playing Flash games during my lectures.

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