Online Education and MOOCs

The difference between online and blended learning lies in both the extent to which a human teacher plays a role in learning, and whether that role requires a physical presence in the student's location. Online education ranges from approaches with no real-time interaction between teachers and students (e.g., in the case of many Massively Open Online Courses) to ones in which teachers facilitate discussions in real time with groups of students who physically are either widely dispersed or in a different location from their teacher (e.g., visit the website of Minerva Schools, an exciting new approach to university education).

Much has been and will continue to be written about MOOCs and their impact on education, including K12 (where some schools have begun to allow them to be used by students who have exhausted the available "in-person" offerings, or where a school system simply can't afford to offer a given course). Closely related to MOOCs are more traditional courses that are offered for credit but at a cost to the student, but delivered online (see, for example, the offerings for high school students -- including a full range of AP courses -- from Fuel Education). Most recently, EdX has begun to offer MOOC based AP courses for high school students. Many K12 districts also offer free online courses to their own students (though not many offer online AP courses, unfortunately).

Here and here are two articles about an exciting study on the positive results from expanded use of online K12 education offerings in Florida.

Here is an excellent overview of online education from the Boston Consulting Group.

This paper asks if MOOCs will kill classroom stars, while this one takes an in-depth look at how different students progress through a typical MOOC course. This paper argues that in the future, MOOCs will be combined with new approaches to providing real time interactions with human teachers.

This paper is a broader meta-analysis of various studies that have been done on the subject of online learning, while this one is an overview of digital learning developments in 2014.

Here are the recommendations for improving online education in Colorado that came from the last state commission on this issue.

And this is an excellent editorial from the Economist on the promise of expanded online education, and why colleges are still resisting it.

Blended and Adaptive Learning

The introduction of blended and adaptive learning technologies, while not as disruptive as the shift from seat time to competency based education, should still have a substantial impact on education. To start with some basic definitions, blended learning encompasses a wide range of approaches that combine student use of online and computer based technologies with teacher led or facilitated classroom activities (e.g., discussions, problem solving, coaching, etc.). The case for greater use of blended learning is that is a more productive approach than traditional classroom methods, that enables more efficient and effective personalization and differentiation of teaching. For example, rather than having a teacher deliver in in-class lecture and assign problems to do as homework, a student could be assigned homework to watch a lecture online delivered by a world-class professor (or K12 teacher or someone who lacks teaching credentials but certainly knows his or her material and how to communicate it, like Sal Kahn of Kahn Academy fame), after which the teacher would work with individual students in class on problem-solving, or perhaps facilitate a discussion about the issues raised in the lecture they watched. More broadly, blended learning is just another example of a much broader trend at work in the economy, which seeks to better combine technological and human capabilities to improve productivity and results by allowing each to do what they do best.

Adaptive learning is the term used in education to refer to another concept with a much longer history, and wider application. In essence, it is a technique that has been used in the design of everything from video slot machines to computer games to military training simulations to do two things in near real time: (1) Assess the extent to which a person is mastering a given challenge or challenges; and (2) Use this assessment to recalibrate the degree of challenge to a level that maximizes satisfaction (e.g., with the video slot experience, the degree of learning challenge, or the degree of game success) and in so doing, keeps a person immersed in the experience. In the education space, I like to think of adaptive learning technologies as an attempt to provide each student with an individual tutor to guide his or her learning experience (after all, the tutorial approach was the way people were educated for centuries before so-called "factory schools" and "whole group instruction" were introduced in the late 19th century). The linkage to blended learning and competence-based education is clear, with adaptive learning technologies potentially enabling teachers to focus on what they do best with students (indeed, activities where human teachers add the most value), and through this superior application of complementary human and technologically based methods, to substantially improve student achievement outcomes.

An obvious question to ask is, "Does it work?" This article takes that on, and concludes, as is true with competence based education, "it depends." More recently, a RAND analysis has come to more encouraging conclusions about the impact of various personalized learning approaches. More encouraging conclusions can be found in this even newer research summary from the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

To people who have experienced the twists and turns of the private sector's experience with large-scale technology investments over the past thirty years, this should come as no surprise. Readers of a certain age will remember (painfully) the high hopes for big productivity gains that accompanied the firs big wave of investment in information and communication technologies, and the big disappointments that followed. It wasn't until private sector companies made equally large changes to their organizations -- from process design, structures, and staff skills -- to complement their new technological capabilities that those investments began to produce substantial productivity productivity increases. There is no reason to expect that K12 will be any different. That said, here is an article with a number of success stories from blended learning implementations.

Here is a more comprehensive report on the use of digital technologies in K12 education, and here is another from BCG and the World Economic Forum. Both are excellent.

More recently (November 2016), we’ve read this new report on Data-Driven Education (a critical enabler of blended/adaptive and competency based education), this one on “Teaching in the Machine Age”, and this one on “Will Blended Learning Fulfill Its Disruptive Potential?

Here is one guide to implementing blended learning and here is another. And here is a report on best practices in implementing online and blended learning. This article and this one both make the point that successful blended learning is about much more than technology. And this paper from The New Teacher Project describes how greater use of blended learning will change teachers' jobs.

Finally, here is an excellent overview of the technology investment options facing K12 schools today, and here is an outstanding new (May 2015) report on technology in K12 by BCG and the World Economic Forum.