Tag Archive for online

Contrasts In Online Textbooks

Our Technology Advisory Committee recently reviewed two online textbooks as part of our study of electronic course materials. We are seeking opportunities to save money, reduce backpack weight, and reach a greater variety of learners. The the two online textbooks were so far apart in quality and instructional features! I find it problematic to recommend that all teachers give the online textbooks in their subject areas a closer look.

Discovering Algebra and Discovering Geometry (Key Curriculum Press) were extremely limited. The website presents an online version of the book that is reasonably easy to navigate. You can page through the document or jump to a specific chapter or page. Interactive features are limited to highlighting glossary terms and looking up answers to practice problems. It is little more than the textbook in online form. That saves backpack weight but otherwise offers little additional value. At the time of writing, both online texts were not available due to “technical issues.”

Imagina, from Vista Higher Learning, was completely the opposite. Less of an online text and more of an online learning environment, their website offers quizzes, videos, voice recording, synchronized audio readings of texts, PowerPoint teacher presentations, lesson plans, differentiated exams, a basic learning management system, assignments calendar, gradebook, and for an additional fee, electronic conferencing features. My goodness! Students get all of this at half the price of the textbook (which our students don’t buy). The teacher builds course instruction around the many resources available through their website. You can try out the demo on their website.

If Imagina represents the future of the online textbook, then we are heading somewhere wonderful. How many companies will produce website resources of this sophistication and usefulness?

Good Courses to Offer Online

What online course offerings best meet students’ needs? Initial ideas suggest four common types:

1. Elective courses in subject areas not offered at one’s school

2. Advanced courses for students who have completed the subject course sequence in their school.

3. Review courses for students who need more work to understand the material.

4. Courses for students who change schools and find that their previous coursework does not match up with their new school’s course sequence.

Missing from this list: the core, required courses of most schools. I wonder whether other, larger online course providers have success offering core courses that compete directly with schools’ core curriculum.

The Online School for Girls just announced their course offerings for 2011-12, and lo and behold, their courses fall neatly into the first three of these categories.

AP Computer Science
AP Music Theory
AP Psychology
AP Statistics
AP Macroeconomics
Environmental Science
Japanese I
Multivariable Calculus
Global Issues
Intro to Animation
Differential Equations
AP U.S. Government
Graphic Art
Intro to Human Anatomy, Physiology & Disease

Summer Courses
Intro to Computer Programming
Review of Algebra I
Write with Confidence, Clarity & Purpose
Transition from Spanish II to Spanish III
Transitions: French Enrichment Course

Photo credit: cindyfunk on Flickr

Will Online Education Transform Schools?

Online education will not replace place-based schools, but it could free teachers to focus more on students and professional development.

The rise of online schooling has gained much attention of late. 45 states (plus D.C.) have established virtual school programs (1). 495,000 students are enrolled in full or part-time online programs, 0.9% of the total national K-12 enrollment (1). Institutions such as Stanford University, the Oregon Virtual Education Center, and the Online School for Girls have launched successfully and then grown quickly. Some wonder whether online schools will quickly replace place-based schools. I doubt it, based on the history of other technology innovations.

School systems inherently resist sweeping changes. They broadly distribute decision-making authority across the institution, making rapid change nearly impossible. Wide gaps persist among education research, practice, and policy.Teachers still largely control the learning environment once the classroom door closes. Teaching has largely resisted trends toward professionalization such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In this environment, online schools are unlikely to take over as the dominant model for 9-12 education.

Could individual cost vs. value decisions lead to an education revolution? Again, I doubt it. Most efforts to impose economies of scale on teaching have fallen flat. Large, urban school districts were intended to streamline school administration but instead caused bureaucratic bloat and worsened inequities among schools. Technology-based instruction may work well for content delivery and basic assessment, but teaching involves so much more than content delivery and skills practice. Responsiveness to student needs requires individualization only possible with a low student-to-teacher ratio.

It is more likely — and more consistent with other technology innovations — that online education will find its niche within the education landscape. What online courses are most popular? Economics, psychology, world languages, computer science (3): highly applied subjects that do not satisfy college entrance requirements. Place-based schools do not consistently offer courses in these subjects due to low enrollment, but online schools draw from a much larger pool of potential students and are typically not responsible for a student’s entire academic program.

65% of Catlin Gabel high school courses have only one section. This causes significant pressure on teacher planning time and schedule constraints. At the same time, these highly specialized courses are among the most highly prized of the junior and senior course offerings. The school that accepts credit for online courses makes available a much broader selection of highly applied, engaging subjects at low cost to itself. This has the potential to reduce the number of “singleton” courses, easing pressure on teaching planning time and scheduling.

If online courses become popular, won’t some teachers have a reduced course load? Yes, and that would be a wonderful thing. In an age of electronic course materials, the need for teachers to deliver course content is greatly reduced. Teachers can focus on the interactive aspects of teaching: facilitating discussions, assessing student learning, building rich, interdisciplinary and real-world connections, and advising young men and women as they pursue their studies.

Teaching fewer periods would make it easier to meet with students and other teachers. Professional development, so long under-emphasized in schools, could really take off. Place-based schools would specialize in highly personalized, caring environments for learning and personal growth.


(1) “K-12 Online Learning: A Literature Review“, National Association Of Independent Schools, April 2010.

(2) Clark, Tom. “Online Learning: Pure PotentialEducational Leadership Vol 65 No 8, May 2008

(3) Booth, Susan. “In the Virtual Schoolhouse: Highlights of NAIS’s Survey on K-12 Online Learning” Independent School, Winter 2011

Kids, do you know what an IP address does?

When it comes to student behavior on the Web, adolescents behave in a manner that suggests a lack of awareness that anyone could find out what they are doing online. I try to combat this with a simple lesson about IP addressing.

Kids, you are not anonymous on the Internet, because there’s this identifier called an IP address. On some networks, it positively identifies you (we assign IP reservations on our wireless network). On others, it provides a temporary identifier that can be used to track one’s network activity, the pattern of which may identify you. Our wireless network, web sites, and email system automatically track user activity in this way. I’m not even getting into browser cookies and corporate tracking of user click patterns.

When unsupervised, children may behave poorly, unaware that they could be held accountable for their actions. This is akin to the parents going away for the weekend and leaving the child at home, perhaps with the car keys! An awareness of system logs and IP addresses may encourage children to behave better. Alternately, it could encourage them to become more skilled at hiding their identity on the Internet. I like to think that behavior would improve for most students.

Can anyone point me toward an empirical study that would help me more deeply understand this psychological dynamic in children?