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Resources: FAQ


Tom Vander Ark talks about the learning revolution to a wide variety of audiences almost every week. Here are some of the questions he gets:

How is this any different than radio and TV?  Advocates said they would transform education and here we are.

The web is interactive and ubiquitous.  The curve-bending adaptive potential of personalized learning is what really makes this different.  It’s the first chance in history to learn more, faster and cheaper.  It’s official—anyone can learn anything anywhere.  And that changes everything.

Is this just about making learning more fun and interesting?

Higher levels of engagement will lead to more time on task and more learning per year. In the next decade, we’ll become much more sophisticated about motivation and should be able to tailor learning sequences by learning level, interests, and motivational profile. When you combine engagement with 24/7 access to digital learning, it’s an affordable way to double time on task for many students. Simulations and 3D animations will prove to be a much more powerful way to teach many aspects of science, calculus, and social systems.  And finally, online learning allows us to rethink school architecture and staffing.  Differentiated (different levels) and distributed (different locations) staffing leverages great teachers where ever they are.  Together, the benefits of personal digital learning will help students learn more faster and help schools become more efficient.

People with access may be able to learn facts, but not persistence, judgment, and wisdom.

That may be true of search, but we’re moving up the knowledge food-chain.  Learning games teach persistence.  Social learning communities promote dialog.  Virtual environments and simulations teach critical thinking.   The question implies a fully automated learning system, but for the foreseeable future virtual and blended learning environments will rely on powerful sustained learning relationships—and in many cases, those interactions will be more frequent and meaningful than in traditional environments.

Won’t this cost more money?

Blended schools can cost less to operate because they can use differentiated and distributed staffing (i.e. different levels and locations) and higher student ratios for portions of the day.   States and districts will need to make investments in high access environments (i.e., provisions to ensure that every student has an Internet access device) but the switch to digital content and assessment often saves enough money to more than offset the total cost of access devices.  U.S. schools should plan on switching from print to digital for the 2012-13 school year in preparation for new online state assessments.  The switch will require some planning and some changes to policies and budgeting practices—start now.

It sounds like there are transition costs.

The shift from batch-print educational model to personal digital learning is a complicated project with academic, human resource, technology, financial, as well as policy and political dimensions.  To make the shift more doable and affordable, most schools will want to break the process up into bite size chunks: a few grades each year, and digital content one year and competency-based progress the next.  It would be helpful to have grants to pay for outside expertise, project management, buying (rather than leasing) tablets or netbooks, and training.  Without grants, schools may need to postpone some purchases and save money for a year to internally fund the transition.

Will opening up online enrollment to previously home educated and private school students cost states money?

Concerns about increased enrollment are real but likely to be quite small, perhaps 1% increases in some states. Because online learning is often 10-15% less expensive (even more savings on a per course basis), the cost of increased enrollments is likely to be offset by savings recouped by traditional students enrolling in online courses.

Will online learning just become another unfunded mandate from states to districts? Shouldn’t states pay for online learning?

Several dozen states initially paid for online courses provided by the state and held districts harmless.  As the programs scaled, the double payment for students became unsustainable.  North Carolina is the most recent example of a state that ended ‘double-dipping’ and required districts to pay for the online courses—a money-follows-the-student system.  The complicated mixture of local, state and federal funding makes a ‘funding follows the student’ recommendation a challenge.  The opportunities afforded by digital learning are further rationale for states to create more equitable funding systems that also encourage achievement and completion. Rather than being an unfunded mandate, online and blended learning are an opportunity for districts to simultaneously improve quality, expand options, and reduced cost.

Doesn’t online/blended learning exacerbate the digital divide and achievement gap?

Yes and no.  New access devices and services always create a gap and may exacerbate parenting effects (i.e., good parents get even more effective at promoting learning) but technology will continue to get better and cheaper with wider access.  As states and districts make provisions for one-to-one access, it will give every student 24 hour access to quality learning opportunities.  Technology may not close the achievement gap, but it will close the preparation gap—more students will be adequately prepared for success in college and careers.

How will a ‘playlist’ of experiences and a bunch of online courses add up to an education?

Customized learning playlists have the potential to make to quickly build basic skills.  A choice of online courses can ensure that every student has access to a comprehensive curriculum of consistent quality.  But making sure that it adds up to a coherent education is still a challenge, maybe a bigger challenge.  Worst case scenario, it’s an electronic version of the old shopping mall high school.  Best case scenario, blended schools will combine productive pathways of learning around a core intellectual mission and will encourage students to demonstrate important habits of mind.

What’s the next big advance?

Content embedded-assessment will be the most important development of the decade. Instead of weekly quizzes, students will soon receive dozen forms of instant feedback daily from learning games, computer scored writing, end of unit quizzes, simulations, and virtual environments.  Once all this feedback is linked to the Common Core, the flood of achievement data will guide regular goal setting conversations between a student and a teacher/advisor.The casual game space suggests that performance feedback can promote persistence, achievement, and self-directed progress.

How should teacher effectiveness be measured?

Multiple measures should be used to make judgments about educator effectiveness.  Obviously, we must include evidence that answers the question “are kids learning?” but the shift to personal digital learning is introducing new instructional experiences and new differentiated/distributed staffing models that make the ‘effectiveness’ question more complicated.   So build temporary agreements and update them every year or two.

Won’t this all be superficial learning? Can computers promote deeper learning?

I haven’t factored a polynomial for a decade (and then it was to help my daughter with her homework), but I spend most of the day doing multivariable problem solving.  Algebraic thinking is a keystone skill that every young person needs to engage in the idea economy and to be a contributing citizen.  Systems thinking is a step beyond algebraic thinking with hundreds of equations and thousands of variables—and that’s where there’s real value-add.  Systems thinking is more about differential equations and rate of change than algebra. A good op-ed from David Brooks or Fareed Zakaria, or an interview with investor Warren Buffet, or a game from Will Wright exhibits systems thinking and can influence your own mental model.  Simulations and virtual environments (like good historical fiction) can teach facts as well as systems thinking—a potentially super-efficient way to build rich mental models. Schools that blend the best of online and onsite learning will combine well constructed projects supported by targeted skill-building playlists, they will promote deeper learning.  There are and will be certainly be fast, cheap and superficial approaches to learning, but the potential is much greater.

What is the quality control mechanism?

With multiple statewide providers of online learning services, states play a critical role in contracting or chartering.  Few states have sufficient capacity for this important performance contracting role; they should take a couple percent off the top to fund oversight.  In addition to a robust contracting function, states must enact the ‘good school promise’ by closing and replacing persistently failing schools.

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