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Report: OnLine Ed beats traditional? Think before you click…

August 20, 2009

Today, I read an article in the NY Times ( that shared the results of a 12-year study by SRI International (yes, the same people who bring you those reading “kits” so prevalent in every school).

According to the study, students that participated in online education performed better on assessments of content than did students learning under traditonal “face to face” methods.

SRI’s quick conclusion of these results is that online education is better than traditional methods. Barbara Means, the primary author of the study and an educational psychologist for SRI stated, “The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction.”

Uh, not so fast.  I think that’s a MAJOR oversimpification and here’s why. I’d like to see if any other “factors” may have contributed to the apparent increase in student performance. Consider these arguments:

1) Student engagement.  It’s harder to tune out a self-directed computer program than it is a teacher, particularly if the teacher isn’t very good at gaining and maintaining students’ attention. Notice how enrapt our kids are with their technology these days — even to the point of being able to shut out EVERYTHING else. 

2) Less disruption.  Many of our classrooms are noisy, undisciplined, and unproductive.  Where is it easier for a child to focus: in a classroom where others are continually distrubing the learning environment or in a room by yourself where you have nothing else going on but “learning?”  Particularly where that learning is at your own pace.  There’s no “group dynamic” going on — no one else you need to keep pace with.

I’m worried about the increasing discussion that is going on regarding increased use of tech in the classroom as though THIS is the silver bullet we’ve been looking for.  Don’t get me wrong — I think technology IS important and has its place.  But, this study does NOT provide the “Now we know the answer” type of conclusion.  I know it’s going to give a HUGE boost to the online education market and everyone will be running to that side of the educational ship to see what’s going to happen next.

When you consider that the biggest complaint employers have today about the young people that they hire is that they lack the interpersonal skills – the LIFESKILLS — they need to succeed in business. That means social interaction, communication skills, etc.  Online classes will NOT be able to teach that or expose kids to the real world.  All the tech solutions in the world — from online courses to the DLC’s “Kindle in Every Backpack” proposal — will not replace personal interaction and all that goes with it.

Our kids are already inundated with technology and their are living increasingly in the tech cave.  There’s no tech substitute for exploration, discovery, and hands-on learning.  Or the sharing of the “a-ha” moment when an experiment works and the whole class SEES it together.  There’s more to education than just merely academics. We shouldn’t lose sight of that as we look to better ways to deliver that education to our youth. Technology may be a valuable and effective tool, but it’s a TOOL, not a solution.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Janet Nelson permalink
    August 22, 2009 2:43 pm

    Interesting article. Looks like, for the most part, they are drawing their data from adult learners, which means they are motivated and self directed from the get go. I know that technology is an integral part of my classroom, and something that is extremely valuable working with the at-risk and often learning or behavior disabled high schoolers that I serve. It is not a magic bullet. It takes a good teacher, great classroom management, and pertinant subject matter to engage kids and encourage learning. Technology is only one tool, albeit an extremely important one. It is also something that can be over used and abused by teachers that are either too exhausted or apathetic to stand up and engage their students in real life interaction. I love technology, use it regularly and extensively in my classroom, and understand its limitations. Like good wine, it’s not the only thing on the menu. Now, let’s all get up and do a project-based collaborative art project expressing the dangers of self-isolation and computer based compulsive drooling disorder.


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