Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Innovative Educator’s 10 Recommendations to Improve Online Learning

I just attended my first iNacol Virtual Schools Symposium where I heard from a number of politicians, authors, administrators, educators, students, and vendors about online learning. Knowing learning online provides an opportunity to transform education, I was rather disappointed as I heard from various individuals engaged in this work. In many cases they were doing business as usual...just online. It seemed they were not harnessing the true power of this medium. However, as an innovative educator I know that we often need to follow the progression of doing things we've always done in a new platform, then move to doing things differently in a new platform, and finally to doing different things in this new platform. Below are my ideas for moving online learning across this continuum.

10 Ideas for Improving Online Learning

1. Online learning should not be place-based
Many of the online learning programs I learned about unnecessarily required students to follow the traditional system of having students together in classroom consuming the same material at the same time. Why? The content is online. Are we so stuck in our old methods that we are forcing a potentially innovative learning opportunity into the same old structure of a brick and mortar school? For many, yes we are…but we shouldn’t be.

2. Online learning should not be state-based
I was just amazed at how many online learning programs are state-based? Why? When online does it really matter that the teacher or students are all from the same state? NOOOOO!!!!!! It does not. States need to provide funding from students to take classes from a menu of options, but these students and teachers DO NOT need to reside in the same state. Hello??? We’re online for goodness sakes. The content of these courses is not state-centric. Algebra 1, English 1, American Government, US History, Chemistry 1, etc. etc. etc. do not, or at least should not have state-specific content. We need to blast open the doors and let students and teachers cross state lines for goodness sake!

3. Online learning materials should be shared
People all over the world are selfishly developing fabulous online learning content. Selfish because they’re not sharing. Aren’t we one nation? Don’t we want to do what’s best for all? Then why are schools and districts hording their materials? Why are we all doing the same thing over and over? Why are we continuously wasting money and reinventing the wheel??? In some cases, it never even occurred to folks that they could or should or be sharing. They can and they should and LMS platforms should make this easier.

4. Online learning students should be connected
Guess what? Online learning is online and we’re teaching a lot of the same course at the same time to students all over the world. The online learning world needs to learn a lesson from social media and enable those pursuing the same interests to connect. Conversations are more robust and learning is more relevant when the numbers of other teachers and students you can connect to and share with is increased. Let’s erase the artificial lines of traditional schooling and let online learning provide an opportunity for students to connect.

5. Online learning classes should be more interesting
Online learning has finally gotten some legs and it’s about time, but what amazes me is that they’re not offering more interesting courses. In large part they’re just offering the same opportunities available in traditional school settings. Let’s expose students to new opportunities that are missing in schools. Let’s provide some amazing offerings in music and photography in filmmaking or becoming a stylist. Let’s open their worlds online rather than providing them with what they already had access to in the traditional classroom. Let’s bring experts in the field into these courses and help students find their passions, talents, and interests. Let’s expose and connect them to others who love what they love.

6. Online learning should not feel like a sentence. Doing time should not be the indicator of mastery.
Many students admit that school feels like they’re just doing time. Unfortunately in many states, seat time is still the measure indicating if a student has completed a course. This needs an update which online has the potential to make happen if only the laws were updated. Students should be able to prove mastery any time during the class or take extra time and get additional supports if necessary. In the Schoolwide Enrichment Model the practice of ensuring students don't have to spend time on material they already know is called Curriculum Compacting which you can read about here: 

7. Online learning should push states / nations to provide more opportunities for assessments when students are ready, not when it’s easiest to herd students through the tests.
Online learning has the potential to deliver courses to students anytime in the year, yet many tests are still only given once a year, often several months after the students have completed the course. States need to figure out how to certify educators or others to proctor the test throughout the year as students complete the course.

8. Online learning should result in the eradication of textbooks
Did you know the textbook companies still have their fangs in the pockets of funding for our students requiring students to buy outdated, boring textbooks to receive credit? Are you kidding me??? These are online courses. The textbooks need to reach their long-overdue death and enable students to learn in relevant, engaging and up-to-date environments. The fact that educational systems are allowing this and not driving the industry to come to its timely demise only points to the politicized, commercialized interests that are inappropriately driving education. Save the billions of wasted textbook dollars and replace it with relevant content.

9. Students in online learning environments do not need to be grouped via date of manufacture.I was surprised by how many online learning teachers, schools, and providers still grouped students by year of birth / grade. Why? We don’t need to sequence all students through the same courses at the same time. We really don’t. With online learning perhaps a students wants to focus deep into a subject and plow through several math, science, or literacy courses. They should be able to do that. Or perhaps a student just moves right through a class. They should be able to steamroll full force ahead to the next class, regardless of their age. On the other end of the spectrum, if there is a topic a student is having difficulty with, they should be able to spend more time in that area and/or have the opportunity to receive the support they need.

10. Learning centers should be available to students
For many students, taking classes at home is not a viable option for a number of reasons. Communities need to establish learning centers to meet the needs of such students. This may mean opening the doors of school and local libraries to students with proof of enrollment, it may mean partnering with local businesses, it could mean turning the often unused community room of a building or project into a learning center during specified hours, or perhaps it means making use of schools of education like Teachers College, that often remain empty during the day. There are numerous possibilities that could make this a viable option for interested students.

Online learning is a modern construct that is by habit employing outdated practices. Upon questioning several implementing these programs appear to be doing what they’re doing because this is always how they’ve done it...or because disconnected policies and politicians say it’s so. My message to them is, “STOP!” Implementing these common sense recommendations is in the best interest of our children. Doing what is best for our children should not be a fight. It should be a cause that we are all behind. After all, what is really the motivation of those who are fighting to keep these outdated constructs in place? This is how we’ve always done thing? This makes it easier for politicians to measure success? This serves as an easy money stream for textbook providers?

We need to put in the forefront the reason we are doing this work. It is not to make politicians look good, to make textbook companies richer, to do what educators are most comfortable doing, or to make test implementation easier for the multi-million dollar testing companies. Instead it is to do what is best to serve our children...following these recommendations will move us in that direction.


  1. See what EdReformer contributor Tom Vander Ark had to say about these ideas at . I had the good fortune to meet Tom at the conference and as someone with valuable experience in the area of online learning, I look forward to his continued insights.

  2. I strongly believe in your point #3: Online learning materials should be shared.

    Especially when teachers who make content are generally paid with taxpayer funds. If that's the case and they didn't do it on their own time then doesn't the end product belong to the taxpayer?

    I also agree that this is easier than ever before. That's why I post courses on If anyone else out there wants to share I'll put your course there as well. If everyone shares one then we should be in pretty good shape.

    Jon Fila

  3. I wholeheartedly agree that online learning should not be place-based and should be available to ALL students, not just those enrolled in traditional, brick and mortar schools. Here, in NC,we have the NC Virtual Public School, what our Governor describes as a whole new world of educational opportunity for North Carolinians, no matter where we call home. Apparently, this wonderful opportunity is not for all of us, though, because those of us that have decided to lawfully school our children at home have, until recently, been barred from the system. (How's that for open access? Why should it matter whether the student is public, private or homeschooled? We all pay taxes to support the system.) Just recently, NCVPS opened up enrollment to homeschoolers under a school's "visiting student policy", but my children are not visitors to a physical building (we're talking "online classes" right?), plus, the state wants to charge us exorbitant fees for courses. Florida has been running a virtual public school for years, which is free to residents, whether public-schooled or otherwise. I fail to understand NC's "lack of vision" with regard to this issue. If the Governor truly cared about the students, ALL of the students of NC as she claims, then she would give us all access.