If I had a time machine, I would travel 20 years into the future to examine how blended and online learning has evolved over time to alter the face of education. I think my findings would be surprising to many even though my predications for this period are unfolding right now before our very eyes.
About a year ago, I first spoke with Curtis J. Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University and author The World is Open: How Technology Is Revolutionizing Education.
“I think kids in 20 years are going to walk into school and pick their peers for the day,” he says. “And they’ll be coming from all over the world. They’ll just hit a little map and they might even pick their teachers for the day coming from Philippines and Singapore and other places.”
This would redefine how we think about “global education.” Perhaps a high-tech projector could also emit a virtual representation of students from around the globe, helping to foster a sense of community as kids discuss solutions to the day’s most pressing issues. This would also allow students to learn from the world’s most talented teachers, who could appear before a classroom of hundreds or even thousands. This would intensify the competition for fewer teaching positions, but more importantly, tomorrow’s students would benefit greatly.
It may sound scary, but one day, much farther into the future, I foresee students receiving individualized attention from an advanced artificial intelligence, much as the young Spock did in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek.
Today, even at the high school level, terrific online institutions are forming to offer teenagers some of these advantages. I recently learned about the three-year-old Global Online Academy (GOA), whose mission statement speaks to how technology can and should foster a brighter teaching and learning environment:
The mission of the Global Online Academy is to replicate in online classrooms the intellectually rigorous programs and excellent teaching that are hallmarks of its member schools; to foster new and effective ways, through best practices in online education, for students to learn; and to promote students’ global awareness and understanding by creating truly diverse, worldwide, online schoolroom communities.
I spoke more recently with GOA Director Michael Nachbar, who explained an intricate teacher-training program, which requires intense online coursework for potential hires to learn and gain experience with managing an online class. At the end of that initial six-week period, successful recruits travel to Seattle, Washington, where the company is based, to experience a week-long summer workshop. “That, I think, is the highlight for many of our faculty because it gives them a space to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. We get to work alongside them,” Nachbar says.
I wish more schools—public, independent, and charter—shared Nachbar’s commitment to teaching educators how to manage online learning environments. Without question, significant time and professional development need to be directed at this initiative, especially if schools in existence today hope to remain not only cutting edge, but also relevant. But as I listen to Nachbar, he makes plain that he doesn’t want or intend to replace or get rid of schools.
“In fact, I will clearly say that we don’t think that the model of what our schools are doing is broken. Kids should be on campus,” he says. “They need to be in classrooms with one another. There’s magic that happens there, and they need to be looking at learning in other ways and developing other skills.”
I’m equally impressed with The Online School for Girls (OSG), which opened its virtual doors in 2009.
On Wednesday, I reached out to OSG Director Brad Rathgeber, who says that he wanted to help create a growing consortium that afforded easy entry for any school that shared OSG’s vision for girls’ education and online learning. I’m not surprised to learn of the tremendous success OSG continues to experience under his leadership. In fact, the program has grown from 50 total semester enrollments to now over 900.
“The growth has been pretty tremendous on the student front. We also have a pretty robust student summer program that enrolls about 100 kids over the summer to take courses,” he says. “On the other side, we also have a professional development program that has grown pretty dramatically too, as we’ve tried to help faculty members engage with tenets of online and blended learning and give them an avenue to explore that field and to engage in it.”
Rathgeber says that OSG’s online environment focuses of connection, collaboration, creativity, and application. More than anything, he wants these factors to help ensure that girls feel fully connected with each and their teacher.
“Through online education and by pooling resources and working together as a group of schools . . . we can extend the opportunities that we have for girls,” Rathgeber says. “For a school it becomes kind of a strategic supplement to what they’re doing on their campus that can and will be used differently by different school in different ways. We think that’s a really good thing, that it’s not just kind of a one-size-fits-all. You figure . . . out as a school what works for you, and then you engage in [that] way.”
Admittedly, and unlike Rathgeber and Nachbar, I have a more radical belief of where the future on online and blended learning will take us. I firmly believe in the value of a physical connection that a campus provides, and I too would hate to see that disappear. All the same, I think that virtual learning communities will grow to become much more than mere supplements. In the future, the entire school experience will be blended. Students will certainly engage in physical interaction with students, teachers and administrators, but they will also do just as much of this with the same sorts of people virtually, in whatever way one can imagine.
I imagine that in some cases, online learning environments will make it unnecessary for students and teachers alike to attend school each and every day. This would alleviate not only overcrowding, but also the mounting financial burdens many schools face. As scary as it may be for some to conceive, for certain subjects, advanced artificial intelligence or recordings could completely replace the need for a human teacher. If you think I’m way off base, consider Khann Academy.
Trying to decipher what the future holds is never easy, but regardless of what you believe, schools today must get even more serious about . . .
- Providing quality professional development training for teachers to manage online courses.
- Requiring that students take at least one or two online courses before graduating.
- Brainstorming ways to include even more blended learning into the curriculum.
- Teaching students how to use technology to answer their own questions, and to pursue their own passions.
Interview transcript (OSG Director Brad Rathgeber)
Interview transcript (GOA Director Michael Nachbar)