There's this myth in the brick and mortar schools that somehow the onset of online K-12 learning will be the death of face-to-face (F2F) interaction. However this isn't so -- or at least in the interest of the future of rigor in education, it shouldn't be. In fact, without a heaping dose of F2F time plus real-time communication, online learning would become a desolate road for the educational system to travel.
The fact is that there is a purpose in protecting a level of F2F and real-time interaction even in an online program. In education, the components of online and F2F are stronger together than apart. The power is in a Blended Learning equation:
Face-to-Face + Synchronous Conversations + Asynchronous Interactions = Strong Online Learning Environment
And if distance learning is to have the level of quality that we dream for it, we as educators need to proactively be a part of the Blended Learning that is inevitably coming our way. There's no denying it's here and growing, and teachers can no longer put their fingers in their ears, yell, la-la-la, and pretend that they have some say in whether or not online learning will be a part of education's future. It's not a question of if; it's a question of how. In fact, teachers must be an active part of designing online learning's rigor and quality or they will be left in the dust.
The Threat Ahead in Teacher Interaction
I have found that many who dream of online learning somehow imagine a virtual school where the teachers are no more than those who load up the assignments and set up the learning management system. But by taking actual teaching out of the distance learning equation, we are dooming distance learning to mere correspondence course status. And it has the potential to be far greater than any model we have thus far imagined, but only if the tools are used properly and if the balance of offline interaction and online learning are aligned.
I recently helped to pilot a number of distance learning programs for my school district. I met with the representatives of three of the major competitors of learning managements systems for schools and tried out each interface. Each permitted transparency for parents. Each permitted me to create a bulletin board of sorts where I could load recorded lessons, upload videos, provide assigned links for homework, create a dropbox for my own handouts, post grades, receive assignments, email, etc. Pretty cool; but not enough.
In other words, it was all asynchronous, taking place without the real-time guidance of a teacher. What was missing was my own interaction with the students. I discovered that any synchronous method of meeting with my students was a part of an additionally priced plug-in for any of the online management systems we were looking to purchase.
What does this say about a teacher's perceived role in the future of online learning?
So, I asked a basic question to all the vendors who were pitching their wares to my district: where are the teachers? I was told that we could always record our classes and post them for students to watch at their leisure. Great, I said. But where's the real-time contact? One of the vendors responded that it wasn't necessary in order to deliver the content to the students, that in fact student success in an online environment wasn't hinged on a relationship with a teacher.
$%#^$^&?!!! (Excuse my language.)
I discovered that if you want to create a class experience online, you need to purchase something like Wimba/Elluminate that allows you to create a collaborative space online for students to meet with teachers. With programs like it, you can go over a Powerpoint, share a screen, break the kids out into discussion groups, answer hands that are virtually raised, and experience material together. But if you want that real-time experience, you need to purchase additional programs in order to benefit from the grown-ups in the community.
Now, I am a huge believer in distance learning and the power of online tools, but I deeply believe that by sending the message that real-time teachers are only needed as a luxurious plug-in and not a fundamental fixture of this next educational chapter, we are doing a disservice to our students and the quality of these growing programs.
5 Components Needed for a Blended Learning Model
Both synchronous communication and F2F interaction are vital to support the success of online learning. To help explain ways to blend both these education models, I've provided a list of at least four necessary components to include in a blended learning environment:
1. Your first class should always be Face-to-Face (or at least Real-Time) if possible. Look, when faced with an online contract, we've all scrolled down to the bottom and clicked "I Agree" just to skip reading the thing. Having an initial F2F introduction class helps to set the expectations of the class and put a face to your teacher and classmates. Having offline faces increases online accountability.
If this can't happen in an actual classroom, then perhaps this can happen via virtual conferencing technology or Skype. Regardless of the program, there needs to be voices and faces.
2. Assessments should be real-time and the choice of F2F or online should be made available. For those big assessments, there should be an actual location for local students to attend. For those further away, there needs to be a time period, a window in which to take the test.
Contact a local school district to utilize a computer lab. Contact your local library to reserve their computers during a specific time. Make a location for students to gather to take the assessment.
3. There must be multiple times throughout the class that are synchronously conducted. Sure there are many conversations happening asynchronously, threads going on, assignments analyzed, and feedback given at wacky hours of the day and night, but there also must be "class times" where students are sent a link and must attend the real-time conversation between classmates and teacher. This is one of the methods in which adults can model a standard of online conversation. It is also about accountability a vital way to help build community.
4. Differentiate your Content Delivery and Discussion Methods. Online Learning is not differentiated unless teachers specifically utilize the various ways to provide the material. Sure, watching a Powerpoint on one's own time might work for some, but for other online learners, they need real-time Q & A. Classes online are not inherently differentiated if there's only one method of content delivery. You can also create your own Second Life island to meet for virtual lessons, or learn more about Adobe Connect Pro or any number of virtual meeting programs in order to provide for all the learners in the community.
5. Keep the Class Size Limited. Don't let online learning supporters who do not understand educational quality deceive our K-12 schools into thinking that class sizes can be larger in a distance learning environment and quality won't be affected. Feedback takes time under any circumstances, and that means protecting our students and our class sizes. Take a tip from some of the pioneer districts currently running successful distance learning programs like the one in Riverside, California; there is no escaping the fact that the more students per teacher, the less individualization per student.
Online learning is here and we teachers as experts in education must embrace it. We are a necessary component in its success, but only if we use our knowledge and voices to become a variable in the equation of blended learning.