Virtual School Meanderings

August 18, 2010

A Response To iNACOL’s “Leadership Day 2010: Online And Blended Learning”

The end of July was Leadership Day 2010, an annual event organized by my colleague and fellow CASTLE blogger, Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant.  Essentially, it is an event to “blog about whatever you like related to effective school technology leadership: successes, challenges, reflections, needs, wants, etc.”.

I accepted the challenge and posted my own entry entitled Leadership Day 2010 – Advice On Virtual Schooling. In Scott’s entry where he summarizes the event’s activities, Leadership Day 2010 – The final list!, he described it as “A letter from a K-12 online learning researcher to administrators advising them, ‘Don’t believe the hype!'”

One of the other things that I did notice from this final list was that I wasn’t the only one who blogged about K-12 online learning.  It seems the folks at iNACOL also posted an entry on the Next Gen Learning Challenge blog entitled Leadership Day 2010: Online And Blended Learning.  I wanted to take some time today to respond to that entry.

While I don’t disagree with most of the entry (in fact I generally agree or have no issue with everything up to the end of the bulleted list), there are a couple of points I wish to make.

Today, 20% of all college students in undergraduate or graduate school take an online course, while online courses are available to 2% of K-12 students.

I’m hoping that the 2% figure for K-12 is a typo.  According to Picciano and Seaman (2008):

1. Three quarters of the responding public school districts are offering online or blended

• 75% had one or more students enrolled in a fully online or blended course.
• 70% had one or more students enrolled in a fully online course.
• 41% had one or more students enrolled in a blended course

Additionally, Florida has legislated that all schools must provide online learning opportunities to their students, while Michigan, Alabama, and New Mexico all require some kind of online learning in order to graduate from high school (in the case of New Mexico it is actually an AP, honors, dual enrollment or distance learning course. Surely the combined schools in these four states equal more than 2% of the schools in the United States? And that would be assuming no K-12 online learning activity in the other 46 (and we know from Watson, Gemin, Ryan and Wicks (2009) that 41 of those remaining 46 states have significant K-12 online learning activity).

In K-12 education, online and blended courses are providing highly qualified teachers, advanced courses, core courses, remediation for dropout prevention…

Couldn’t I simply replace online and blended courses with classroom courses and the statement would be just as true?

In K-12 education, classroom courses are providing highly qualified teachers, advanced courses, core courses, remediation for dropout prevention…

The fact of the matter is that there are many schools that have highly qualified teachers and that offer advanced courses, core courses, and remediation for dropout prevention.  To make a statement like this implies that online and blended courses can do this, while traditional face-to-face classrooms can’t.

I should also note that one of the advantages that online and blend course have right now is their scale, the simple fact that they are in the minority.  It is a simple case of supply and demand really, if we were to fast forward twenty or thirty years and let’s pretend that Christensen, Horn and Johnson got it right and online and blended courses are the norm or “standard way of doing business” (essentially let’s imagine the percentage of online and blended vs. classroom learning that is occurring has flip flopped from today’s numbers).  Given that online and blended learning is now the majority delivery model, wouldn’t there be just as many bad teachers, poorly designed schools, etc.?  When you are in a minority position you have the luxury of being selective.  When you are in the majority position and simply trying to staff positions and accommodate learners, you take the best that is available.  Having ten well qualified candidates and only needing two is a very different position than having ten candidates of varying quality, but actually having twenty spots to fill.

The reality of the situation is that while online and blended learning may have the potential to do many wonderful things it is all in the execution.  The same is true of the classroom!  The traditional classroom does have the potential to do many wonderful things – it is responsible for my success and I’d imagine the success of most of the people reading this blog – it all depending on the execution of the individual(s) in the room.

…most students take classes online that are otherwise unavailable in their face-to-face environments.

I have to disagree with this.  At the 2007 Virtual School Symposium, iNACOL President Susan Patrick stated that the two courses with the highest enrollment of online students in the United States are Algebra I & Algebra II.  Given that almost every state requires at least one full year of mathematics in order to graduate, how many schools do you really believe aren’t offering Algebra I & Algebra II.  Further, Watson, Gemin and Ryan (2008) stated that the the largest growth in K–12 online learning enrollment is with full-time cyber charter schools.  These are not students who were taking classes online that were otherwise unavailable to them.  These are individuals that selected the online option for all of their schooling based on the school choice regime (some, including myself, would argue market choice and deschooling agenda).  Finally Watson, Gemin, Ryan and Wicks (2009) reported that there were 320,000 course enrollments in supplemental programs in 2008-09, but approximately 175,000 students enrolled in full-time programs (i.e. at least four classes or at least 700,000 course enrollments).

Leaders who provide these new opportunities for students will better prepare those students for continuing their education and the workforce as they are not only able to learn content and access high quality teachers through online learning, but they are gaining additional 21st century skills by learning in this environment.

This is good rhetoric, but that’s pretty much where it ends.  I know iNACOL is big on these twenty-first century skills because of their involvement with the  Partnership for 21st Century Skills, but the fact of the matter is that much of what is generally described as skills necessarily twenty-first century are largely nineteenth century skills that my grandfather possessed (see VSS2007 – Virtual Schools and 21st Century Skills and New Report from Partnership for 21st Century Skills for earlier discussions on this topic).

Concluding Thoughts:

This is actually a very good example of some of the mistake that proponents of K-12 online learning make when trying to make their case.  You see the problem here is that the rhetoric and empty language of the second half of the entry, drown out the good ideas presented in the first half.  Sure this kind of language may work with the lemmings out there, but anyone with a skeptical or critical eye will immediately dismiss this was more Bible thumping from the virtual schooling evangelicals.  And that’s a problem because there are some good ideas in the first half of the entry.

The belief that school leaders – and I would argue anyone involved in education – should be:

  • Training to start and manage online learning programs and virtual schools (full online courses, hybrid/blended learning, online concurrent/dual enrollment models, dropout prevention, credit recovery and online remediation options, competency and performance-based models)
  • Leadership training and the development of a blueprint for what is possible in innovative school models using online and blended learning
  • Implementing Open Educational Resources and using digital content to supplement and enhance face-to-face and online learning
  • Evaluating and supporting teachers in the online and blended environment

These are all great notions, and things that people in Colleges of Education (like myself) should be preparing the next generation of teachers and administrators for.  But unfortunately, by the time you get to the end of the entry much of this is lost.


  1. Michael regarding your first point regarding the 2% figure… I don’t think you are interpreting the sentence as it was intended. The Picciano and Seaman study you cite estimates that there were a little over 1 million students enrolled in online and blended learning in the 2007-2008 school year, which ends up being about 2% of the public school students K-12 in the nation.

    Given that the sentence was comparing K-12 online learning to higher education online larning, I do think this is what was intended. I probably would have changed “available to” to “utilized by” and the intent becomes more clear.

    Full Disclosure: I recently began working for iNACOL, but was not working for them at the time of the blog entry being discussed and I am not representing iNACOL in this comment.

    Comment by Matthew Wicks — August 18, 2010 @ 5:22 pm | Reply

  2. Matt, thanks for the comment. Yes, the notion that only 2% of K-12 students elected to take an online course, while 20% of college and university students makes sense. But even comparing the two in that way isn’t a fair comparison. A higher percentage of college and university students have real world responsibilities (e.g., job, caring for loved one, etc.) compared to K-12 students. I’m not saying that many K-12 students don’t face these realities, just that a higher percentage of college and university students would be in that position and would HAVE to take an online course (as opposed to choosing to take an online course).

    Also, if you look at the literature on what characteristics students need to be successful in an online environment – they are roughly the same for K-12 students as they are college and university students. As adult learners, more college and university students possess these skills.

    The comparison is almost like saying a higher percentage of college and university students drive themselves to school than do K-12 students. A false dichotomy in almost all ways.

    Comment by mkbnl — August 18, 2010 @ 5:38 pm | Reply

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