Online Learning: A Paradigm Shift in Education

(This is the first in a weekly blog entry. The next one will deal with 21st century learning skills.)

    Dr. Thomas Kuhn, then a professor at Harvard University, coined the term paradigm shift in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn claimed that science did not exist on a continuum, but rather underwent a shift that changed a fundamental approach and a way of thinking about something. This change is perhaps best described as a volcanic eruption that alters a landscape, or reveals a feature never before seen, rather than the gradual change that occurs over time. The change in learning introduced by digital technology and individualized learning represents a paradigm shift.

      In most ways, the delivery of instruction in schools has not changed since the beginning of formal, mass education in the middle of the 19th century, or at least since the introduction of the ’12 year graded school’ in the late 19th century. Also known as the factory school, this model grouped students—and learning—based on age; the assumption was made that everyone at the same age learns the same and is equally ready to learn. The model worked relatively well when the nation’s requirements were focused on training youth to become industrial workers.

For the bulk of the ensuing 100 years plus, most changes have been made to fit the model; the model, for the most part, has remained intact and unchallenged. However, beginning at the end of the millennium, the earth started shaking. People began to realize that nearly every other organization in society had changed. Education was the last holdout. Educators (finally) realized that you did not need to sit in a classroom to learn! This realization led to a revolutionary change in the delivery and structure of the educational model.

Virtual schools began to appear on the landscape and schools began offering courses that could be completed online, without students having to sit in a classroom. In 1997, Florida Virtual School opened its portals with 77 students. It now has more 400,000 than full- and part-time students and is by far the nation’s largest. According to iNACOL (the International Association for K-12 Online Learning), there are nearly two million students enrolled in online courses through local schools. Between 2011 and 2013 alone, there was a 55% increase in full-time students, the number going from 200,000 to 310,000. Since 2000 there has been a 12-fold growth in online learning. Few aspects of education have experienced such phenomenal growth.

Even with all this growth the topic of virtual learning still spurs serious debate among educators. Many claim that the only way learning can take place is when a student sits in a classroom with other students and listens to someone standing in front of the classroom. Those who claim that learning can only take place in a classroom setting seem to forget that very often many students are not even modestly engaged in the material. As the teacher speaks to one or two students, the others may be dreaming, or looking out the window, or worse. Thus, attention and learning are not guaranteed by being physically present.

The discussion of the benefits of online learning is often obscured by self-interest. Many see the online environment as a threat to the role of the traditional teacher. The response to this concern is that there will always be a need for good teachers. I believe it is more important to focus on outcomes, on what students can—and do—learn and how these students can enter either college or the job market and become productive citizens.

In the blogs that follow I will discuss a number of issues related to the advantages—and disadvantages—of online learning. I welcome responses, comments and questions.

 

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