Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sugar Candy Mountain

I believe in the promise of online education. I really do. I think it has the potential to radically transform the way we teach and learn, by knocking down the walls of time and space and challenging every assumption we have about how schooling must be done.


When Michael Horn talks about how online teaching can change the role of the teacher and liberate her from a wide range of administrivia, I have to take issue. It certainly can. It certainly could. But it many cases, it's not.

Yes, online curriculum takes over a lot of the burden of direct teaching. In theory, this should free up teachers to work one-on-one with students and do a lot more performance-type assessment. And I'm sure there are places where this is happening. But we need to be aware of what else is happening.

Administrators are looking to online learning to save them money, and that's not a bad thing. There are many places where using online learning can increase efficiency and even upgrade educational services being provided (think of what it can mean for students on home medical leave, compared to what they've traditionally received). But the combination of districts' desire to shave budgets and for-profit providers to show a profit leads many online school providers to load more and more kids on the backs of fewer and fewer teachers. In my own experience, I saw the provider I worked for change from having each part-time (10-15 per week) teacher manage 50 students to having them manage 60, and then 70, and then more.

Now, 70 students may not sound like all that many if you're shoving them into physical classrooms. Traditionally, at a high school level, that could be as few as two class sections, which a 15-hour hire could easily handle (well, not easily, but she could deliver a lecture and run for the hills). But in online education, those 70 kids could be taking a wide range of classes. You may have a handful in English 1, a larger handful in English 2, a bunch in English 3, a bunch in a whole array of electives, and so on. The idea of a "prep" doesn't exist in online education, which means even a part-time teacher may have to teach 10 different classes simultaneously. And if this is a part-time teacher, you can bet she's doing this work after coming home from a full day of teaching her "real" students all day in a physical building. So she comes home (exhausted), feeds her kids and puts them to bed, and then has 2-3 hours to attend to these virtual students...70 of them spread across multiple classes. What level of quality instruction is she going to be able to provide?

Oh, you say, but that's OK, because she's not really "teaching" the class. Wrongo, Mary Lou--she absolutely is. She may not have to prepare or deliver lectures, but she needs to work with students, grade papers, in some lead class discussions (synchronously or not), and so on.

With full-time hires, it's both easier and harder. Easier because the virtual kids are the one and only priority--they're not the "other" kids attended to after a full day of work. So it's easier to manage time and do what's needed. On the other hand, for-profit school providers are ramping up the load for full-time teachers to as many as 300 students.

Now, let's get real. If you're teaching 300 students simultaneously, even if you're not providing the direct instruction, how closely can you really work with them? How much authentic assessment are you going to be able to do. English teachers: what say you? How many essays can you correct, per week?

The providers understand this, so to protect their profit margin (and let's face it, they have to protect their margin or they're dead), they scale down the performance assessments, little by little, and rely more and more on auto-scored assessments. They won't remove the teacher-graded components (well, some will), but they will definitely make them fewer and further between, to give the teacher more time for that one-on-one service. With 300 kids. And God help them if they're not able to keep pace with the rest of their section, because keeping pace is sometimes pushed for more manically in online schools than in traditional schools, because the district is paying for each kid and damn sure wants to see that kid complete the course. If they can't complete the course with Provider X, they'll switch to Provider Y, so the incentive is not, exactly, to maintain high levels of rigor and demand performance from students.

So I'm not saying Horn is wrong. I'm just saying we need to see clearly what's really going on.