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Oakes

Online Education and Group Work

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Mrs. Paquette,

I have two related questions:

(1) I've been thinking about how technology might change education in the future. I don't have any experience in the field, but I've come to the conclusion that with the increase in internet speeds and the growth of tablet pc's, online education with become an easier alternative for parents who don't like public schools and can't teach their own children. I imagine a time when students can use a single tablet pc to watch live or recorded lectures, documentaries, and videos, read textbooks, and write and send in assignments via the internet. To me, this seems ideal in that your kids can stay at home and still be taught by professionals. Is this a viable alternative that you can picture occuring any time soon?

(2) After thinking about the above, I began to wonder about some of the downsides of online education, and indeed home-schooling in general. The main problem I see is the lack of opportunity to do group work and interact with other students. I recall that Montessori schools put a special emphasis on bringing kids of different ages in the same classroom, so the older ones can teach the younger ones. Isn't this kind of interaction lost in home-schooling and online education? Furthermore, is student-student interaction important only for young kids, rather than the more independent high-schoolers and college students?

Zach Oakes

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This is Gail Paquette's reply to the questions posed by Zach Oakes.

Mrs. Paquette,

I have two related questions:

(1) I've been thinking about how technology might change education in the future. I don't have any experience in the field, but I've come to the conclusion that with the increase in internet speeds and the growth of tablet pc's, online education with become an easier alternative for parents who don't like public schools and can't teach their own children. I imagine a time when students can use a single tablet pc to watch live or recorded lectures, documentaries, and videos, read textbooks, and write and send in assignments via the internet. To me, this seems ideal in that your kids can stay at home and still be taught by professionals. Is this a viable alternative that you can picture occuring any time soon?

Technology has already changed the shape of education today. Certainly the availability of information via the Internet makes independent computer-based learning convenient for students, but parents still have to take the initiative to evaluate the content of on-line courses. The structure of the course, the level of interactive learning, and the personal motivation of the student all affect the success of any distance-learning program.

In Salt Lake I know of one new college (also open to high schoolers for dual credit) that offers only computer based learning at the student's own pace. The Applied Technology College (which is an "experiment" funded by tax dollars) presents numerous video courses by experts in their fields, although often students wind up dropping out before their coursework is completed. I'm guessing that they get burned out sitting in front of a computer screen passively taking in information, and that the pull toward doing other "live" activities in a more social setting wins out. Highly motivated high school students, though, may learn well in this setting and get a jump on their college courses while saving money on tuition.

For younger students, I can see computer-based learning as viable only if it's established as a foundation from early on, and only if there are other live classes to supplement. A great deal would depend on how disciplined the parents expect the student to be, and the availability of other opportunities for classroom and social interaction.

(2) After thinking about the above, I began to wonder about some of the downsides of online education, and indeed home-schooling in general.

The main problem I see is the lack of opportunity to do group work and interact with other students. I recall that Montessori schools put a special emphasis on bringing kids of different ages in the same classroom, so the older ones can teach the younger ones. Isn't this kind of interaction lost in home-schooling and online education?

Social interaction and learning from a live teacher in a classroom environment does have value in education. Home schoolers often organize co-ops for shared classroom experiences in different areas that match the collective parents' expertise. The quality of content, though, is only as good as the parent-teacher leading the course. Parent-led group classes can be chaotic. Much depends on the parent's ability to teach the subject he or she is passionate about to the level of the students' understanding, and the dynamics of classroom discipline that the students exhibit.

In my experience, secular co-ops typically work better academically for primary grades-middle and high school classes tend to be more socially oriented than academic. Skill levels are more varied among older home schooled students, which makes it difficult to have a homogeneous class. Hands-on classes such as science labs, woodworking, drama and art classes are typically more popular among teenage homeschoolers.

Religious co-ops are often more effective throughout all grade levels because the level of discipline and respect for the teacher is higher. Due to the preponderance of religious curriculum materials available, their co-ops resemble a less formal parochial school without the pressure of evaluations and testing. Many religious co-ops follow a comprehensive planned curriculum and are more integrated and hierarchically organized from one grade to the next.

Furthermore, is student-student interaction important only for young kids, rather than the more independent high-schoolers and college students?

High school students can be more disciplined in their learning, yet I've also seen high schoolers be totally absorbed in the social scene. Whenever a student has the opportunity to "teach" a fellow student, both can benefit. The teacher should be able to articulate the concept (and not just "show" how to manipulate specially designed materials) for learning beyond a concrete level to take place. Mentoring at all ages, in my opinion, is valuable.

To sum up, I would say that a good education has three essential components: the curriculum, the teacher, and the student. You can develop the best curriculum on earth, yet if the teacher delivers it poorly (or the computer-based course is not interactive enough to motivate the student) the value of the curriculum will be lost. Teaching well is all about communicating concepts well and mastering the material. The best resource that I've seen on this subject is John Milton Gregory's "The Seven Laws of Teaching." Gregory's book is an eloquent statement of principles of teaching methodology that apply across the board. [Discussion of his book may be the subject of another post.]

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High school students can be more disciplined in their learning, yet I've also seen high schoolers be totally absorbed in the social scene. Whenever a student has the opportunity to "teach" a fellow student, both can benefit. The teacher should be able to articulate the concept (and not just "show" how to manipulate specially designed materials) for learning beyond a concrete level to take place. Mentoring at all ages, in my opinion, is valuable.

Thank you very much for your reply. The main reason I asked about the need for interaction was that I had discussed the Robinson Curriculum with others on this forum. It's a home-schooling curriculum (that you may be aware of) that requires very little parental intervention; it's almost complete self-study. They claim that this teaches children to become independent learners. This sounds reasonable on the face of it, but I figured there was a value in teacher-student interaction as well.

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