There is no sense in trying to hide from it. Online learning is part of our future, despite a recent spate of hand-wringing op-ed articles about it. (Here and here.) People are worried, legitimately, that Internet courses will displace the all too valuable interaction between teacher and student. Coursework could devolve to depersonalized lectures instead of meaningful growth experiences. Everyone loses.
The concerns illustrate the intangible quality of classroom learning that teachers and students cherish. But an outright dismissal of e-learning also ignores the potential of technology to improve education. I admit that I didn't see it this way until I talked to Ramit Varma, the co-founder of an online tutoring and student testing company called Revolution Prep. "When people think e-learning, there is a vast spectrum of what that means," he said. "When parents hear e-learning, they think their kids watching YouTube videos," Varma said.
Revolution Prep's services are intended to compliment the classroom experience rather than replace it. The company offers teachers a computerized diagnostic test to pinpoint where a student's skills gaps are. It offers live tutoring via Webcam to help them prepare for advanced placement tests or standardized college entrance exams. "People think you get very distracted when you're on the computer. It's exactly the opposite. When you're facing a Webcam, you can't get on Facebook," Varma said.
Another online education tool (featured in a National Journal story on the immigration woes of foreign entrepreneurs) comes from Class Dojo, an in-class computer program that helps teachers monitor and reward kids' behavior.
The people who created these products speak eloquently of the raw power behind a technology that, if deployed correctly, can move the dial on educational outcomes. The tools make teaching smarter without giving up valuable classroom experience. The problem, of course, is that educators and parents have to take the time and effort to sort out the helpful ideas from the useless ones. The naysayers on e-learning are understandably on guard for cheap and sexy "learning" products built by computer whizzes who have no educational background.
What are the most dangerous pitfalls in e-learning? Where can technology make the most difference in boosting student achievement? Is it more appropriate to use e-learning in college than in K-12 classes? Can a Webcam teacher be as effective as one in a classroom? Are there subjects that lend themselves to e-learning? Are there subjects that do not?