Introduction to online learning

Readers of science fiction were probably the first people ever exposed to the idea of online learning. In the mid-1970s, for example, Orson Scott Card published Ender’s Game, a novel about the use of computing technology to shape children into human automatons in the service of a warmongering state. The plot’s dystopic consequences, facilitated by a device that eerily resembles the iPad, might well have led teachers and policy makers fear the impact of machines on students. After all, technology in the classroom really might destroy the educational principles – not to mention civilization as we know it – laid down by millennia of human thought and invention.

Of course computers have been part of American classrooms for almost two decades, and most educators do not view educational software programs as a threat to learning. Indeed, teachers in the U.S. are keenly aware that lower standardized test scores suggest that our educational system is not successfully teaching enough students the reading, math and science skills needed for a technologically sophisticated global economy. Common Core state standards, which map out what students are expected to learn, will be part of the solution. But which tools, especially digital technologies, students could use to gain insight and strengthen cognitive ability, are as yet largely undefined.

What is almost certain is that the mid-nineteenth century style of in-classroom instruction — one teacher for every twenty-five or thirty students — is a model that can only educate a manageable number of people. What about the hundreds of millions of people who are leaving behind low-tech rural economies, once represented by countries such as China, India and Brazil, for high-tech urban centers? Even a broadly distributed corps of volunteer teachers could not scale up to the demands of a world economy that depends on a deep knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

What learning model will teach people the skills necessary for amassing and analyzing the terabytes of data generated by our schools, healthcare institutions, retailers, social media, airlines, to name a few? What technology, if any, will aid in understanding the chain of events that lead up to a historical period, or that stimulate the growth of a national literature? Is there an educational silver bullet — the massive open online course (MOOC), for example — that schools can implement across an entire curriculum, or should state standards mandate case-by-case technology requirements?

The fact is, we know of no data that prove online learning is hype or that it signals a genuine paradigm shift in the way human beings are going to learn. Any private company or university that advocates one mode of digital instruction over another is more likely engaged in an effort to gain market share than in determining what actually works. We at McGraw Hill Education Labs certainly would not argue that it’s a bad thing to let the market decide what kind of online learning platform a school should adopt. As the publisher of textbooks for a hundred and twenty-five years, though, we think that before any constituency lobbies for one educational technology over another, it’s crucial to envision an education ecosystem that takes into account the relevant factors concerning pedagogy, schools, teachers, students, authors and other content creators, state education boards and, as some argue, the workplace.

This is why we want to use the MHE Labs Blog as a forum to share our thinking with you — educators, students, school boards, state education departments, employers and parents. In the spirit of debate and investigation, we want to ask questions and examine solutions before we press for one particular online learning model over another. We want to anticipate all the things that could go wrong: Will digital technologies give students an opportunity to cheat? Will the technology itself become an obstacle to learning? Will we be able to keep pirates from distributing our intellectual property — thereby jeopardizing the quality of educational materials and undermining the compensation system that rewards authors? Taking a doctrinal approach in favor of, say, MOOCs over a computer-based program strikes us as premature, especially when so many analytical and philosophical matters remain unaddressed.

Over the next few weeks, we are going to explore issues that many of us at MHE Labs have been talking about. And we hope you will join us in a conversation that typically produces more heat than light. Among the topics we’ll cover:

WEEK 1: Why introduce “newfangled” online learning into an educational system that has helped produce some of the world’s greatest scientists, engineers, writers and teachers?

WEEK 2: How do online learning publishers reach the thousands of schools — from kindergarten to college — with their educational offerings?

WEEK 3: What constitutes authentic learning in a digital environment?

WEEK 4: How do we motivate students to learn?

WEEK 5: What does simulation turn abstract knowledge into “actionable” intuition?

WEEK 6: Why can’t school be more like Whole Foods — the curator of many unique and personalized offerings?

WEEK 7: What is the future of content — or what we used to call “textbooks?”

WEEK 8: How do we compensate authors and other content producers for their work?

WEEK 9: Can digital education and teachers learn to get along with each other?

What we do know about the importance of developing an effective online learning ecosystem is just how much is at stake: A robust economy, a middle class standard of living for millions of people still reeling from the economic downturn, and the ability to thrive in a brave new world “instrumented” with 3-D printers, sensors and robots. Let’s start figuring out what works and why, because the more we learn about how we learn, the better equipped we’ll be to make the best technology – and education – decisions.

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