More on theory vs. practice…

I had a chance to see Will Richardson present this past summer while at a retreat sponsored by The Consortium for Public Education. He was engaging and pushed the envelope and forced me to think about many of the things I have been doing in my classroom — all things I desire and expect from a speaker. Richardson didn’t disappoint.

One of the things that really stood out to me, though, was Richardson telling us (I’m paraphrasing) that if we weren’t up on MOOCs, then we were way behind in education. I looked around and thought to myself What the heck is a MOOC??? Man, you’ve worked hard to stay up on things and you don’t even know what a MOOC is? You are out of it!

It took me all of about a minute to google it and find out that I just hadn’t heard of them being called this acronym. Whew, I thought — it’s all good, you’re not a total idiot. I had read about what Stanford and MIT and Harvard were doing and had certainly been intrigued. Making this type of content available to anyone is certainly intriguing, right?

Beyond this, I was also prepping my own online course for the Intermediate Unit in our county and anxious to see how their eAcademy would work. Would I be working with the best and the brightest as I’d been led to believe — or those simply using the opportunity as a way station before dropping out, as I suspected? I feared the latter, but had been promised the former, with some growing pains thrown in for good measure, which is certainly understandable.

Clicking on this image will take you to its source, a great page with an infographic on MOOCs.

Clicking on this image will take you to its source, a great page with an infographic on MOOCs.

But let’s get back to the MOOCs before I go any further about my experience with online education. Richardson was all over them. He explained to us that this is the direction of education and that we needed to get on board the train. We could either get on board or watch it pass us by. I remember thinking that same thing about the use of the internet about 15 years ago and we all know where that has led. So what he was saying made sense to me, even though I am not willing to make the jump to this in isolation completely.

My personal feeling is that these ideas/methods need to supplement the things we’re doing in the classroom — not replace it. Perhaps there are students who have the discipline that it takes to make this type of learning work. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps there are bigger issues at hand that need to be addressed. @RyanLSchaaf posted this link to twitter — it’s an infographic on To MOOC or not to MOOC and I think it lays things out pretty well. Having said this, I think it’s important to say that I still value the classroom teacher and believe that my interactions with students are vital — fancy that.

Which brings me back to my experience with eAcademy teaching. If you don’t know how this works, and the benefits to a school district, here are the basics. Students have the ability to enroll in a cyberschool — and if this happens, then the tax money that would have gone to the school district instead goes to that cyberschool. In my district, this number is a little over $8,500 per year. The cybers have marketed themselves incredibly well and the fatcats have gotten fatter. I don’t blame the school districts one bit for getting in to this business. Have some students benefitted from this? I’m sure that some have. But this is a pretty special kid.

So it didn’t take long for the schools to wisen up on this and figure out a way to recoup this money. Instead of just watching these students leave for cybers, many have created their own version of the cyberschools, and in the process (in my biased opinion) provided a better learning experience — and kept that money in house, so to speak. But remember that idea of a way station I spoke of earlier — without going in to the gory details of my own experience with the online classes, this is what I saw it to be.

Now let’s get back to theory and practice, which was the original purpose of this post (and was the subject of my last post as well). The more that I’ve thought about Richardson’s comments, the more I’ve respectfully disagreed with them. I don’t believe that MOOCs are the future of education in isolation — not at the collegiate level, but especially not so at the high school level. I just don’t think that the typical student has the drive and determination that this style of learning takes.

And as a teacher, I’m very biased toward that idea that my personal interactions with students matter.

Yet I didn’t have anything other than a gut feeling about MOOCs and Richardson – well, he IS Will Richardson.

I didn’t have anything other than that gut feeling until this, that is. Essentially, the article says that a study was done and we need to put some breaks on the idea that these are the immediate savior some have claimed them to be. Take a few minutes to read that — you’ll see that 4% of a million students actually completed a free course. You read that correctly — 4%. Now that can very easily be spun to a realization that this means 80,000 people got through a free course. Or you could also take a hard look at it and realize that 920,000 did not. More than anything, to me, it tells me that this isn’t the immediate answer.

To me, again, I believe that they should be used as a supplement rather than as a substitute or only option.

And again, I will say that I believe that this is another prime example of an idea that is terrific in theory but not so much in practice. And boy, this sure seems to be permeating Ed Reform by some of our best and brightest lately.

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