This is the question that I've recently discussed with superintendents and principals across Iowa, at least those who are seriously considering the benefits of online learning and the future reality of it as well. Here's a synopsis of what they have said:
SCENARIO 1: CREDIT RECOVERY
Our number of dropouts is way too high. We've got students who fail a semester of algebra 1, which means they cannot enroll in second semester or geometry the following year until they pass. This puts them a year behind. Fail again, they are now 2 years behind with almost no way of graduating on time, just because of math courses alone (or substitute in the science course sequence).
If we could have our present curriculum placed in an online format, a student can work through the portions of the course they failed with the assistance of an at-risk teacher; do so at their own time, pace, and place; and be back on track for graduation. We could purchase packaged programs like E2020 or Apex, but that yearly cost is expensive, and if we had our own online curriculum, it saves money for more at-risk teaching staff.
SCENARIO 2: CONSORTIUMS FOR TEACHER-SHORTAGE AREAS
It is difficult to find a Spanish teacher in many rural school districts, let alone a language like Chinese or Arabic. Plus, the vocational areas of Family Consumer Science and Industrial Technology are hard to staff as well. On top of that, in many schools, those teachers have class sizes of 5-10 students, making it hard to justify the costs.
Sharing staff between two districts has worked somewhat well, but consider the time spent for the teacher to drive between one district or the next. Instead, what if we had the teacher teach online, putting students from 3 different schools in the same course and raising numbers to a more sustainable amount. That teacher could drive to a different school each day (as opposed to several within a day) and still keep the course going.
SCENARIO 3: FLEXIBLE SCHEDULES
If you like impossible puzzles, you should try developing our master schedule for next year. There is no way to get courses placed so that students can be out for Band, Choir, and Computers, which not only upsets the students, it also upsets the teachers of those respected programs.
But if we offered that Computers course online, then the student could take it during their free hour, whenever that would be. Or if they have a full schedule, they could still take the course and work as time permits. That flexibility sure makes scheduling an easier proposition.
SCENARIO 4: ADVANCED COURSES
The hardest students from scenario 3 are students who are the most academically-inclined. Not only because they are more likely to fill up their schedule rather than take a study hall, but also because their courses tend to be ones that there are only 1-2 sections of it (and in many cases, courses whose numbers don't allow a separate section, like scenario 2).
The result is if we have a student enrolled in Advanced Algebra 2, AP Biology, Honors Humanities, Advanced Chemistry, Band, Choir, Journalism (because they are the school newspaper editor), and Honors US History, as well as PE somewhere, they are over capacity, despite often having the ability and desire to take all of those courses. But, by putting Honors US History, Honors Humanities, Advanced Chemistry or Advanced Algebra 2 online, we have some flexibility we didn't have before.
SCENARIO 5: FLEXIBILITY, PART 2
I have a student who was recently suspended, and because of tensions with fellow students, I don't want him back in his course. Or, I have a student who is pregnant and finds it difficult to be in a class with other students. Or, I have a student who consistently butts heads with our one and only government teacher, and government is a required course. I wish I had another option.
SCENARIO 6: FUNDING OPPORTUNITY
In addition to the other scenarios, we have enthusiastic staff and belief that this is the future of education. If by putting our courses online we can offer them to other schools, we could stand to get weighted funding from those students. In essence, online learning makes increased enrollment a possibility.
ACCESS & LEARNING
Here's the upshot, of course. All of those have to do with the access of the curriculum to the student, which is a primary reason for online learning, and realistically, this is where Iowa's administrators should be initially thinking. But at some time, we also need to get to the point where we see students learn more from an online or blended learning opportunity. That, even if the above were not true, there would still be benefits to putting a course online in that it:
- Is a media-rich environment
- Allows both synchronous and asynchronous communication
- Uses ongoing group collaboration
- Connects students with outside resources and people
- Creates a digital portfolio of student work
- Puts the student in a position where she can share her work with the larger world easier
I don't know when the conversation in Iowa will turn from "Online learning brings us better access" to "Online learning brings us better learning"; what I see is that until the first one is fully understood by a majority of Iowa educators, the second one cannot happen. But ultimately, we need to get to that second conversation.