Virtual School Meanderings

August 30, 2010

Online Learning News Out Of Chicago

This topic kind of came at me from a variety of sources.  My good friend Ray Rose posted something on his Facebook page.  It was actually a link to an entry entitled “Does anyone think this is a good idea?” on his blog e-Learning Evangelist.  Then I saw the article posted in one of the iNACOL forums (reproduced below).

About a week later, I saw that Wendy Fleming had posted this on Facebook:

Click on the image or visit,0,6659525.story

While both of these stories are about K-12 online learning in Chicago, they do have slightly different foci. So let me focus on Ray’s question first…

Before I can agree or disagree with Ray, I have to ask the question…  What do we want the purpose of education to be? If the answer is that we want students to be better at bubbling in the correct score on a standardized assessment so that we can raise student achievement and do better on those measures that compare the United States with other countries, than this kind of drill and kill database learning will serve that purpose well.  However, if we want our students to develop into productive, informed, and engaged citizens that are able to compete in a global economy, then the “online education” being provided to these elementary students is counterproductive.  Personally, I believe in the latter.  I also believe that the introduction of these additional 90 minutes of computer-based drill and kill for these elementary students is simply a cheap way for the school district to make it seem like they are doing something, without really having to spend to much money or spend time thinking about actually doing something that will make a difference in the development of these children – but that’s just my opinion.

On the article that Wendy posted, I believe there are three critical paragraphs in the piece that all flow together:

While not all programs are created equal, those used by CPS align themselves with the state learning standards.

“A computer never replaces a teacher,” CPS chief Ron Huberman said. “(But) it allows the most talented and gifted students to move extra fast and the students struggling to take the time they need to before moving on to the next task.”

Still, even the most enthusiastic supporters of virtual schooling acknowledge that practice is far ahead of both policy and research. There’s a risk such efforts could be as ineffective as the worst schools, experts say.

Let’s take these one at a time.  First, just because something aligns itself to state standards doesn’t mean the quality of the program is any good.  The teacher that totally blows in the design and delivery of their instruction and is totally ineffective with their students is likely as aligned with their bad teaching as the best, most creative and effective teachers out there.  How closely something matches the state standards says nothing about its quality!

Second, the CPS chief recognizes that different groups of students can benefits from online learning in different ways.  Why they do they have all elementary students using the same database program in the exact same way?  As I indicated in my Leadership Day 2010 – Advice On Virtual Schooling entry, different kinds of K-12 online learning programs cater to different needs.  There is no one program that caters to them all and there are some students for whom online learning simply isn’t the best way for them to learn.  To force everyone to do online education in the exact same way using the exact same program is like forcing all students to be taught in the classroom using the exact same teaching methods. Don’t proponents of online learning tout its ability to cater to the individual needs of the student?

Third, the experts are right – the practice of K-12 online learning is far outpacing the availability of useful research.  Yet that doesn’t seem to stop anyone from diving head first into ill-conceived and possible ineffective online education experiments that have the potential to do as much harm to our students’ education experience than any benefit it may bring! I’ll be the first to say that I don’t have all of the answers – in fact, I think I have very few of them. But I think I am asking the right questions.  Let’s use this 90 minutes of database learning as an example.  Why begin with 5 schools and then add 10 more before you’ve had any chance to examine the impact on students in those five initial schools?  Why assume that the introduction of online education would be the reason for any gains that may be experienced?  It might have something to do with time on task, it may have something to do with the motivational effects of using the computers, it may have something to do with the time of day the instruction is provided, or it may have something to do with something totally unrelated.  Maybe this year’s crop of students being tested are stronger than last year’s group?  There are a lot of variables involved here and to assume that any differences were cause by the online education is naive at best.

Either way, given that “there’s a risk such efforts could be as ineffective as the worst schools,” don’t you think we should move more cautiously and carefully on these fronts?  Let’s get past our petty political agendas and think about what we KNOW is best for the students!!!

15 Chicago schools could see longer days
Pilot program would add 90 minutes of online education using nonteachers
August 23, 2010|By Azam Ahmed, Tribune reporter…ine-initiatives

In an effort to extend what is one of the nation’s shortest school days, Chicago Public Schools plans to add 90 minutes to the schedules of 15 elementary schools using online courses and nonteachers, sources said.

By employing nonteachers at a minimal cost to oversee the students, the district can save money and get around the teachers’ contract, which limits the length of the school day. Mayor Richard Daley has scheduled an announcement about the “Additional Learning Opportunities” pilot program at Walsh Elementary School in the Pilsen neighborhood. School officials declined to comment on the initiative.

The program’s cost is expected to exceed $10 million, the majority of which will be spent on capital improvements like technological infrastructure, wiring and broadband, a source said. Five schools will begin the program this fall, and another 10 are expected to begin in the second semester. If the program proves successful, it could be expanded to all schools, a source said.


  1. I had posted a comment on Ray Rose’s blog earlier but will repeat what I said there regarding this new elementary school online program.

    Based on the press coverage, there is very little that we know about the nature of this specific program. The fact that the people supervising the labs are non-teachers doesn’t in itself tell us what the online learning experience will be like:

    Are these students going to be participating in computer-based-instruction with the only interaction with a person, being the people supervising the lab?

    Or perhaps instead the students are going to be interacting with a certified online teacher and the people supervising the lab are there to guide and assist the student?

    Or perhaps it is somewhere in-between those two ends of the spectrum. T

    Each of those possibilities is a very different online learning experience.

    Matt Wicks

    Comment by Matthew Wicks — August 30, 2010 @ 2:51 pm | Reply

  2. Matt, the fact that it has been referred to it on a couple of occasions as database-driven, leads me to believe that it is basically an online version of Skinner’s teaching machine. I don’t think these students will be interacting with a certified online teacher – as they doesn’t tend to happen in the database-driven courses.

    I do agree that they haven’t released much in the way of details. But what has come out makes it seem like it is an online version of the old computer-assisted instruction. Which leads me to ask why bother pay for the online subscription when you can get the same thing from a one-time CD-Rom purchase?

    Comment by mkbnl — August 30, 2010 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

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