I am especially interested in the use of gamification in education. If you have an interest in this topic, I would highly recommend the Gamification course offered through Coursera. One thing I noticed, however, was that the emphasis was strongly upon use of gamification for business use and corporate training, and not so much for K-12 education. Gamification can be an effective tool for K-12 online and blended learning. It is more than just using games in the classroom, although that, too, has its place. It is more about using the psychology that makes games so engaging and applying it to a learning situation.
It is apparent is that the increase in the number of K-12 public schools riding the new wave of online education is amazing. This year my own school district decided to turn our alternative ed high school program into a completely online experience. In fact, the program was expanded to include middle school students, and a liaison position was created to reach out to local home school families, so that the program spans grades K-12.
I've followed the local news for Michigan and Indiana as online schools have grown exponentially, and have seen some of the problems they have encountered. They come as no surprise. Most of the stories have been about public schools who tried to implement online classes. Gull Lake schools, near Kalamazoo, made the headlines last year when the state took back money the district should have been paid because their contact with students didn't meet the state standard. Also, in an effort to reach out to local home schoolers, they offered classes that were not available to traditional students in their district. These things are really minor, though. I'm sure the school district was able to make changes to satisfy the state, and, frankly, Michigan (and I'll bet lots of other states) has had a hard time keeping up with the amazing growth of online schooling. They often struggle with which policies to put into place to be sure state money isn't being wasted and that programs really result in academic achievement. The constant changes make it hard for school districts to follow the rules. One principal I spoke to last year noted that in one conversation with the state they were told what they were doing was okay, while in a different conversation they were told it was not. It is hard to follow rules that keep changing.
The word "scandal" was used in the Indiana press last year to describe challenges with online schooling. Issues these schools have faced include poor test scores, a population that is very fluid, and meeting state standards for attendance. Strangely, this is not so different from problems we faced every year in our community ed and alternative high school programs.
It is no surprise that so many schools are jumping into online learning. For one thing, there is lots of money to be made in online schooling. I am sure it is hard to resist the possibility of bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars into a district simply by reaching out to students who have a difficult time in a traditional setting, or to home school families. In fact, public schools usually lose money when parents home school. Offering courses online to home school families gives public schools state aid money they lose otherwise.
Online programs also offer an answer to problems traditional schools struggle with - like poor attendance, behavior issues, and individuals with special learning needs, like high-functioning autistic students. This approach works best, though, when there is an adult at home to serve as the child's coach. The programs also can be a boon to advanced students who have good study skills and who are personally motivated to complete courses. High school students who have clear goals for a career or post-secondary education can accelerate their education in this way.
There has also been an increase in the number of private companies offering online education and collecting money from states for those who enroll in their programs. It is really kind of a back door voucher system. Politicians have argued for years about offering vouchers which students could take to any school. Online schooling has sidestepped the politicians.
In Michigan, for instance, state aid for a full year of schooling is about $7,000 per child. (There is some difference, with a few districts earning more because they were seen as more needy). I think it is pretty obvious that schools can bring in quite a lot of money with online programs. But they have to meet attendance requirements, which include the number of times students log in and direct, two-way communication between the school and the student - such as face-to-face, phone, and email conversations where both the teacher and student are involved. Gull Lake schools discovered that sending an email out wasn't enough to count for attendance. There had to be weekly contact and the student had to respond as part of that contact. Having a drop-in center where students are physically on-site at various times helps meet this criteria.
Sadly, one result of this trend is that some schools jump in without proper planning and preparation, then flounder around while they try to figure things out. The worst thing about this is that it is bad for the students. As much time as schools spend on school improvement, you would think they would realize implementation of an online program requires a certain amount of planning and research. It is also not a bad idea to bring someone with experience in from outside of the district to at least consult, if not supervise, the development of the program.
It is easy for schools to subscribe to an online program, like the Florida Virtual School, Plato, Odyssey, and others. At my school, we have used Novell and Nova Net in the past and currently use OdysseyWare. Subscribing saves a district all the time and manpower of developing classes themselves. Since the publishers go through the process of becoming approved by the state, local districts also don't have to worry about failing to meet state standards when they subscribe to these products.
Then the school can simply set up a lab and sign students up. Granted, there are many schools who do more than this, but essentially all they need is a subscription and some computers and, viola! they have an online program. They easily make up the money they spend on the subscription and for computers and a few staff. Some districts don't even worry about having certified teachers supervise the learning. Instead, they hire instructional aids or mentors, which reduces the cost of running the program.
Happily, there are districts who have created quality online experiences that reach beyond the bounds of their own locale to serve students at great distance. I have great respect for these schools who, instead of buying a prepackaged subscription, have developed their own online classes as an extension of actual live classes. I will talk about one of these schools in another blog. I want to be sure to have space to really share their remarkable story.
To continue your exploration of online learning, you might like to visit www.distance-educator.com.