It occurred to me the other day in the doctor’s office that not only did I have a bad problem with my Achilles tendon, but education has an Achilles heel in almost the same conundrum. The issue it turns out, in an odd sort of way, is identical for medicine as it is for education. Here is the issue.
When you take an anti-inflammatory drug for a specific issue, say the tendonitis in my Achilles tendon, the drug goes everywhere in your body, not just to where the problem is. As a result, the effects are diluted significantly and, specifically, where you need it they are almost non-existent.
In education, we have the same problem with site specific delivery. Young people with special needs or learning difficulties get what every other child gets. This may or may not be effective. It may not speak to the specific child in need of specific attention. Let’s look at the drop out rate, the amount of fatal violence, the need for remediation, and the gross lack of engagement of students. These are serious student or site-specific problems for the whole country.
Educational reform is a general treatment for the ills of education. No general reform has succeeded widely; and many come and go in prominence. What is clear, however, is that there are serious problems. Schools can best be described as designed for teaching classes. Classes today, are aimed at reaching the students in the middle, in many cases, stranding students with difficulties and those in need of acceleration. No single reform can touch all learners. It is just like anti-inflammatory drugs. We bathe all of education in the same agent that works for some and then hope for the best while ignoring the kids who are left behind or those who are bored beyond belief.
Technology in the classroom was to be an answer, but it was just like most reforms, large, fad-like, without a clear purpose. Schools were wired and computers were installed and people waited for miracles. They did not materialize. It was like any building improvement. There were marginal gains, but proficiency did not climb as a result of the act of installing technology or connectivity.
When the state-funded virtual schools arrived in a handful of states almost a decade ago, something interesting happened. Site specific delivery of education could occur, in some cases, with a one-on-one solution for an educational ill affecting a single student or particular classification of students. What was the difference between the virtual school run out of the state capitol in Lansing, MI, and all the computers that a particular school district in Michigan purchased and used mostly for keyboarding skills and web surfing?
Virtual schools go through the deliberate act of developing courses to high standards with a team of pedagogical experts, subject matter experts, and learning theory experts. The courses are designed, built, tested, and evaluated by use; and then improved, many times with the aid of universities or outside professional developers. Name the school where such a practice is commonplace, is so transparent and can so easily be measured? Secondly, teachers at virtual schools are state-qualified in the subject, trained in delivery and work hand-in-hand with mentors or counselors, on the ground, who know the virtual students personally.
There is a simple set of facts that has been empirically proven. The more direct attention students are given, the better they do. The corollary to this is the closer the teacher is to the discipline knowledge and field they teach, the greater enthusiasm students feel toward that subject. Virtual education and hybrid education (a mix of computer use and some class attendance) focus direct attention and provide direct support for online learners. This form addresses the student needing to accelerate caught in a larger class or a rural district, it addresses the slow math learner who needs to listen to the lectures and do the exercises multiple times with a virtual or in-person tutor, and it can train local teachers in a new subject or set of methods, or help a teacher become a principal.
So, if this site specific drug agent is available for education, why isn’t it more popular? There is still a Berlin Wall separating the modus operandi of traditional schooling from new methods in teaching and learning using technology – which are already old methods in business, government and higher education. Perhaps because educators don’t have flexible hours and the ability to work out of their home offices (with the exception of virtual educators), it is hard to understand that one student might excel in the classroom while the other is better off in the computer lab. Or, perhaps, one student is more honest and likely to attend email office hours or to attend class once a week in person and three times a week online. If this flexibility, expected in the adult world, were extended routinely to students routinely, would there be any harm?
These activities are staples of the modern college campus, but remain as “other” in all but a small fraction of American schools. It is inevitable that mixing and matching the use of technology to solve specific problems will increase and one day become the standard. Inevitable, because it is already happening not only at the state funded virtual schools, but in the forward-thinking districts like Fairfax County, VA, Hacienda La Puenta, CA, Palo Alto Unified, CA, and in two of the counties around Atlanta, to name a few. The scientific studies are yet to be published, but the satisfaction ratings are in. So are the performance data and the efficiency factors.
What has not happened and what a handful of us advocate is having the state-funded virtual schools lead the way in “mainstreaming” virtual education and online learning for site specific problems, to fill in the gaps, or to accommodate different learning styles and comfort zones. Imagine if adults all had to do the same thing with thirty people in a set or fixed room every day? I get restless just thinking about this. I can imagine how some students must feel. Trapped in class and disconnected in an otherwise wired world.
One day, I would suspect, every student will have a set options for receiving and completing their work in the way that works best for him or her.