Why Online Education Hasn’t Won

The short answers are culture and choice

There was a period in the 2000’s when we thought that Khan Academy was going to save education. To anyone without teaching experience it makes a lot of sense. Khan Academy provided better and more concise explanations of math and science problems than most teachers could, and it provided them for free and online.

Millions of internet connected kids could arguably get better instruction from Khan than what they got at their own school. And, no doubt, Khan Academy has had a tremendous impact on education — I used it growing up and I still refer students to it as an extra reference after difficult lessons — but there was a time when Khan Academy and similar online learning based companies like Alt School were supposed to “change the rules of education.” They didn’t.

When I was in teacher training I assumed that I would be able to effectively integrate online and personalized learning in my classroom. While there certainly are some teachers who are good at using them, my first year of teaching alone quickly showed me why it is so difficult.

Most of it comes down to student choice. Think about what it personally takes to learn from an internet video. You have no forms of social accountability. No teachers directly interacting with you and (hopefully) modulating content accordingly. Instead you get faceless videos paired with semi-adaptive questions. You have to want to learn the material in order to be engaged and, even if you do care, the infinite distractions of the internet will still make it genuinely difficult to accomplish much.

The tough truth is that compulsory K12 schooling is still built on forcing young adults to learn things they don’t care about. In a weird way, that one fact informs the majority of K12 schooling.Because most students don’t care, because most students don’t want to be there, we have to organize our entire system around having 30 students who are constantly disciplined and kept accountable by one teacher. Unfortunately, the teacher is almost necessary to force the content on students.

Faceless software can’t provide that social accountability. A computer can’t discipline a child and make sure they are paying attention. A computer can’t win over a child and motivate them to work hard. The best it can do is provide grades to a student and hope that they will be incentivized by those grades, but, still, many students aren’t.

When we start to stray from direct student-to-teacher interaction, it starts becoming very difficult to keep most students accountable to classroom engagement. No education software has solved this problem.

Now I should say that I know online learning can be used effectively in the classroom. The trouble is that many people act like it is easy to implement. They just assume that giving a classroom a chromebook cart is enough, but the research shows that increasing access to technology alone does not improve student learning. The effective use of online learning requires the strict development of and adherence to rigorous classroom and school wide systems.

This is the second problem with the effective use of online learning: the effective use of classroom technology requires school culture. First, schools and teachers have to be bought into the effective use of online learning. Schools can be especially entrenched cultures. We have run schools basically the same way for a 100 years. The old way — 30 students to 1 teacher who talks the entire period at the front of the classroom — has a lot of momentum, and it can even be difficult to convince new teachers to adopt different systems. But buy in alone isn’t enough.

You then have to make sure that all teachers are sufficiently trained in the effective use of classroom technology which is harder than most people would expect. It can be difficult to convert lessons online and then navigate through all the different software packages and apps. It takes a lot of integration across platforms that aren’t typically built to talk one another. And it’s often more difficult on the hardware end. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to reattach broken keys, find work-arounds for semi-broken mouses, and finagle the charging of 20+ laptops whose charging port doesn’t quite want to work.

Once all that groundwork is set, each classroom needs to strictly adhere to whatever disciplinary and classroom management systems are set up in order to make sure that any online learning can effectively take place.

So although there are literally hundreds of phenomenal education apps at a schools disposal, the effective use of those apps such that all students are consistently engaging with and learning from the content requires a tremendous amount of effort from the school.

This leads me to my main conclusion. Online learning hasn’t won because it requires more effort from teachers and schools than EdTech companies admit. Education is an extremely slow moving and conservative institution, online learning won’t change education until education lets it. It requires tremendous cultural change to work and, even if you make those changes, you will still be faced with what may be the insurmountable problem that software alone can’t motivate students to learn things they don’t care about. You will still need an in-person teacher and/or willing students.

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