What is authentic learning in a digital environment?

We don’t really know. Nobody does. Yet.

Despite the many answers that are lighting up the Twitterboard — mostly with endorsements of commercial learning “suites” — surveys, studies and news accounts are telling us that the online education industry is simply too young and too inexperienced to have come up with a fail-safe system for educating students from kindergarten through college.

To appreciate the complexity involved in answering what makes for authentic learning in a digital environment, let’s look at a list of the major online delivery models (courtesy of Phil Hill, executive vice president at Delta Initiative). Among these are:

+ Ad hoc online programs assembled by individual teachers.

+ Fully online programs designed for for-profit organizations, such as the University of Phoenix, and online-only courses designed by non-profits, such as Rio Salado College.

+ School-as-a-Service companies that develop curriculum and online tools. Our competitor Pearson is an example.

+ Corporate-Academic partnerships, such as the Cisco Networking Academy, that deliver curriculum, technology platforms and program assessment tools.

+ Competency-Based Education that emphasizes educational outcomes over grades. An example: Western Governors University, which confers certification on students who have “demonstrated learning outcomes.”

+ Blended/Hybrid Courses and the Flipped Classroom, which offer online and face-to-face class instruction where students listen to lectures online and do homework in the classroom. The Khan Academy might have spearheaded this approach by posting bite-sized tutorials on YouTube that let viewers learn K-12 math at their own pace and then spend more one-on-one time with their teacher.

+ Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the system whose technology enables students — in the hundreds of thousands — to log on and take courses with high-profile faculty who design and lead courses. The best known examples include Stanford University-based Coursera and Udacity, and edX, founded by Harvard and MIT.

The makers of online learning products may not know exactly what constitutes authentic online learning, but they are producing them for a variety of learning platforms nonetheless. In addition to getting a jump on the market, what else does the proliferation of these online models signify?

First, online learning is new. For all intents and purposes, it’s only as old as the Web, and no single system, pedagogically or technically speaking, can claim bragging rights. Even a MOOC maker, which looked to be a celebrity winner, recently pulled the plug on an online course that had attracted some 40,000 registrants. A blog headline on The Hechinger Report, an independently funded project of Teachers College, Columbia University, summed up that particular experience: “My first MOOC: Online class about how to create online classes failed miserably.” The moral of the story: If you rush pedagogy into a bad marriage with technology, you’re going to end up in divorce court with your students.

Second, data pointing to the efficacy of online learning is in short supply. That’s not to say that organizations, such as the Babson Survey Research Group, are silent on many of the essential questions about the online experience. Survey authors are getting answers from “chief academic leaders” about their commitment to online learning, the perceived workload involved in teaching online, and the kind of schools that choose one digital experience over another. The most important questions, however, remain unanswered: “What online learning system actually works? For whom? How and why?”

Third, all of the players in the online learning ecosystem are still experimenting. And that’s a good thing. They know that fanfare over the latest scalable technology is not the same as a pedagogical victory. We won’t know who the real winners are until that excellent digital environment comes into existence.

That’s sort of a meta assertion — that we’ll know it when we see it. But we will know a good system when we can evaluate what happens when a student engages with online educational content. For this we will need to establish metrics and then evaluate them in light of the relevant data we can collect. That data probably won’t come until digital textbook publishers, cognitive scientists, classroom teachers and software developers build out the online environment.

Should McGraw Hill just wait for the digital environment to evolve into something seamless and interoperable? The harsh reality is that companies that do not keep up with technology simply become society’s vestigial organs — if they survive at all.

Admittedly, we were prudent when we entered the digital learning marketplace. We went after the low hanging fruit — homework management and lecture capture, to name just two of the tactical issues we addressed with our Connect and Tegrity tools. With 125 years of institutional memory, we have been alert to the snares that await an enterprise that sets out on a fishing expedition instead of a clearly mapped trail. As we wrote in our post about the Impenetrable Forest of Doom, we did not want to create pedagogical tools and content without knowing what works — and without knowing how to reach a vast, distributed customer base with diverse educational needs. When the online learning data are in, we will move forward knowledgeably to integrate Connect, Tegrity and our other educational aids into good online learning systems.

We made the right decision at the time. But that was then and this is now.

We cannot wait around for others to develop the pedagogy and tools in harmony with an online environment. We have a blueprint in mind that shows how good content plus a reliable business model can speed the advent of effective online learning.

For now, let’s just say, it’s in the Cards.

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