Friday, January 31, 2014

eTeaching and eLearning

Ten months ago I started a course of homeopathy to see how it might treat my meninginoma -- a non-cancerous growth that impairs my vision. It's not dangerous but it has become annoying and since conventional medicine doesn't have anything to offer, I decided to try something alternative. So far homeopathy hasn't helped so I halted the treatments and yesterday, I enjoyed my first cup of coffee that I'd had since last March. So yes, the coffee buzz has been amazing. But my body isn't used to the caffeine and I was up for a good part of last night -- now I know how people who use speed must feel. Anyway, after finishing my Shabbat cooking I found myself looking for more information about online education which I've been involved with as a teacher for the Jerusalem EdTech Solutions program. I'm slowly learning how to navigate the online tools that you use for elearning but I was curious about the history of distance learning. Online learning began to gain popularity in the late '90s when Distance Learning Colleges started to offer opportunities for students to learn via the Internet. Traditional universities and colleges scoffed but within several years a number of degree programs were recognized by the United States Department of Education. By 2006 high schools started to include elearning in their curriculum. Today, not only does elearning span grades 1-12 but many schools invite sick kids to join their peers via video-conferencing tools while they're home and some classes are "flipping" -- students learn the material at home, online, and then come to school to complete the "homework" assignments in the classroom where the teacher is available to help. In addition, you can see entire school districts investing in ipads and other tablets so that the students can learn asynchronously at their own pace and in their own learning style. One interesting study was commissioned by the United States Department of Education. The Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices of Online Learning presents irrefutable data which shows that online learning is more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction. The study, published in 2007, didn't take into account today's multi-media and Web-based applications which have significantly improved the learning environment and scholastic results of students who learn either partially or fully online. School systems have been slow to embrace new online technology but nationwide, educaitional institutions are setting out to meet the new challenges of distance learning. College and even high-school students often complete some of their coursework online with increasing numbers of high schools "flipping" their classes altogether. As an online educator I've been following the progress of online education closely. Observing the middle school children that I teach shows me the possibilities that elearning engenders to allow students to work independently, explore the material via a variety of online tools and apps, complete assignments at a comfortable pace and collaborate with peers on assignments. All this creates a supportive, dynamic environment in which a student can get much more out of his or her coursework. The change in society's view of online education can be viewed in a number of ways. Ten years ago, the majority of the public discussion about elearning focused on the benefits versus the drawbacks of distance learning. Today, although there are still some commentators who focus on the problems that online learning may cause (reduced ability to interact face-to-face in a classroom setting, undue reliance on technology, lack of familiarity with traditional book learning, etc) the discussions in the education community have now shifted from whether to include online learning in the classroom to how to best facilitate elearning. Many schools offer online courses but have done little to change their basic model of education. It's clear thought that the times are changing...and quickly. School districts that wish to raise scores, lower costs and prepare their students to compete in the modern economy are adding more distance learning opportunities to their schedules. Teacher-training programs now include mandatory elearning components in their training programs. Teacher awards, including the Lowell Milken Educators Awards, the Elgin Heinz Outstanding Teacher Award, the Pearson Teaching Awards and the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards now examine a teacher's elearning strategies when they determine their prize recipients. Online learning is a natural fit for homeschooling families. Recent studies estimate that the homeschooling population is increasing at the rate of approximately 7-15% every year. Lesson plans and online materials help homeschooling parents and support groups identify and implement both core curriculum studies and extra-curricular activities. I believe that my own online classes are dynamic and highly interactive. The students report that they enjoy the classes and are learning a great deal. At the same time however, my own daughter, who attends a "traditional" school, is in an environment which doesn't see the value of online learning. Sometimes I feel like screaming in frustration as she reports that her school day was "boring, boring, boring." Distance learning may not be introduced in her school in time to provide her with a more engaging school experience but I believe that it will, hopefully, be there for the next generation.

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