Part I: Panacea: “an answer or solution for all problems or difficulties” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/panacea?s=t)
The first time I heard the word panacea was in a foundational education course in college in the title of the book “The Imperfect Panacea.” The book described a history of American education, but the title focused the message toward the concept that our nation looks to schools to solve all of the problems in our society.
According to some politicians, educational leaders, and businesses that specialize in online learning environments, online education may be a panacea-type opportunity for American education. With public schools under constant scrutiny that reveals concerns related to poor international comparisons, ineffective teachers, disengaged students, and failing schools nationwide, many benefits are offered for this alternative to traditional schooling.
Websites from prominent companies proclaim: “Our award-winning curriculum has helped more than one million students succeed, and we’re proud to partner with schools in all 50 states to improve the quality and equity of education;” “…[our] courses engage students with direct-instruction videos taught by expert, on-screen teachers, interactive learning tools, and checks for understanding embedded strategically throughout each lesson;” and “personalize instruction for all your students; provide curriculum that’s 100% customizable; save teachers at least 50 hours a year – per class – managing instruction and tracking progress.” The companies provide news; reviews; awards; accolades; beautiful, professional websites; and world-class videos showing teacher interaction with students who are laughing and enjoying their learning. All of this is provided in order to advertise their ability to revolutionize education.
The standard, key ingredients for success are customization, individualization, self-pacing, interactivity, and guarantees of completion. There are often “multiple course pathways” and promises to engage and motivate students to greater depth of understanding than ever before. One company announces it can be used for “original credit, credit recovery, remediation, intervention, acceleration, and exam preparation.” Another company sees itself well-suited for advanced learners, college and career-minded students, homeschoolers, military families, elite athletes and performers, homebound students, and students needing academic support. In other words, the companies are offering ideal education opportunities for any type of student in any type of circumstance.
As such, these online learning corporations are inviting the world into an ideal environment; practically guaranteeing success; and purporting to fill in the gaps, easily supplement, or sometimes even to take over for all of a student’s or school’s traditional education.They are accepting their role and responsibility as the panacea for the woes of American education and embracing it. There are costs associated with online learning, of course, but that too is part of the solution, as they can deliver this better education far cheaper than the costs of teachers, textbooks, and school buildings.
One of my favorite quotes directed toward advancements in any field comes from Jurassic Park (1993) by Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” With online learning being offered at minimum as a source of support but at maximum as an educational panacea, there is another side to this story of great acclaim.
Part II: Calamity: “grievous affliction” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/calamity)
With all great theories, there is a point at which what is supposed to happen or be possible must meet up with the reality of what actually happens. The videos and claims from the corporate side do not always necessarily meet up with actual experiences of students or teachers. While the first part of this article was taken mostly from the websites of the companies, the second part will rely on online reviews and anecdotal evidence from those involved with online learning.
Undoubtedly, there are positive experiences from the viewpoint of parents, educators, students, and administrators regarding online learning opportunities. However, these positives may be either misguided or exceptions to the norms for this type of education. Online education is sweeping the nation for some reason; there must be something to it. I will play the devil’s advocate for the remainder, however.
In direct contrast to everything claimed by the corporations standing to make huge sums of money off of online education, perhaps that super-dynamic learning environment is not all that great. One interesting concern for online education advocates is that if they claim traditional classrooms do not meet the learning needs of all students, would that not also translate directly to their preferred choice of education? Imagine, instead, an alternative reality to the previously proposed experience. What if online learning looked more like the following:
Students sit in large, crowded classrooms working individually on a myriad of courses with a paraprofessional at the helm. Not only is this leader in the room not specifically trained to educate the students in a particular field, he actually holds no educational degree at all. His role is not to educate and inform; it is to monitor and control. He is not an interactive piece of the online environment ensuring the success of each student; he is there simply to enforce behavior guidelines, assist students with technical difficulties (if he can), and monitor the online programming from the opposite technology side of the students. He performs such duties as pushing a button to allow a student to advance to the next level of their course, allowing students to go to the restroom, and shouting at kids who get too loud.
Students meanwhile are living in a completely different world than that depicted in the professionally created videos. Most of the time they are sitting in their chairs bored out of their minds, sleeping, or mindlessly tapping buttons on the computer.
For these students there is no motivation, interest, or learning taking place. One student wrote, “‘Learning’ [online] doesn’t give us many skills if any; unless you count staying awake as a skill.” (change.org) Often the students watch boring video after boring video and generally pay no attention to any of the content. When it is time to be assessed, they guess, cheat, or persevere by memorizing or creating a database of the questions and answers. In the end, they have learned little or nothing about the subject matter but have earned credit by the sheer force of will, luck, and robotic persistence. (Also see Widespread cheating of the online system in Denver)
Parents are often thrilled with the prospect of online learning for credit recovery, grade repair, or advancement, but later find many flaws in the system. Parents who have claimed positive results from this type of online learning experience often have no idea that their student had learned very little of the actual curriculum. Sometimes, they are elated to see that their child has earned credit and could care less about anything else. Many online educational experiences are for students desperately trying to earn credits, and learning takes a back seat, possibly 50 rows back. I can hear the parents now: “I don’t care if they learned anything, I am just happy they will be graduating.”
The administrative response is typical and expected. More kids earning more and more credits faster and faster must mean successful education. They are just tabulating numbers not evaluating the human impact.
So, that leaves teachers. Some believe this is all witchcraft; but then, these educators still have not learned the difference between reply and reply all. Some know students are not learning, but they either do not care or do not want to bother. Some have no clue what is going on. Some believe online learning can only help. Some realize evil machinations at work and may or may not be willing to stand up and fight. In the end, the teacher forces are divided and are losing the battle against the wealthier, better organized, more politically savvy corporate world.
Part III: The Online Education Multiverse: Panacea or Calamity?
Ultimately, it will be up to each individual to decide whether online education is worthy of its growing place in American education. Do you view it as the cure for all the ills of education leading to a nation of intellectuals, or are you more inclined to think of it as a corporate takeover where bare minimum standards are met by checking off boxes whether actual learning is taking place or not? I wish we could all agree to at least pay a little more attention, spend a little energy evaluating these programs, and decide if the educational community should support this educational panacea or avoid the calamity at all costs.