Gone are the days of digital textbooks and lectures. There are approximately 2.7 million students enrolled in online courses in the U.S. and new technologies are now available that allow these students to experience personalized “learning by doing.” From virtual manipulatives for algebra to digital ultrasound simulations for career health courses, adaptive technology is evolving to offer online instruction that engages and motivates students at a deeper level.
Leveling the Playing Field
Online learning is giving students greater options in academic studies—allowing those with scheduling conflicts or those who live in rural areas with limited offerings to have access to courses, says Bruce Friend, chief operating officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). “It is leveling the playing field,” he says. “Online learning is starting to break down geographic barriers.”
Along with independent study, online learning is providing personalization. “The traditional classroom is simply not the best learning environment for all students,” says Friend. “Online learning is giving students the environment where they have greater control over the time, place and pace of how they learn.”
Transitioning to a New Era
While the early years tended to feature online versions of textbooks, there’s been great improvement in the quality of online courses and expansion of interactive labs, engagement and courses built around a project-based approach, says Friend.
Samantha Becker, senior director of publications and communications at the New Media Consortium, an Austin, Texas–based nonprofit that provides resources on emerging technologies for educators, says the online education landscape has evolved from straight lectures to be more innovative.
“Adaptive learning has really helped online transition to a new era where the learning environments are responsive,” says Becker. As the platform learns more about the individual navigating through the educational content, it can sense if they’re struggling and deliver customized lessons. With detailed feedback, these adaptive programs can introduce concepts from different perspectives and provide additional practice, podcasts, videos or reports until the student “gets” it.
Online Learning in Action
In Minnesota, the South Central Service Cooperative (SCSC) is developing online courses to help school districts across the state supplement instruction and customize learning, according to Glenn Morris, applied-technology director at SCSC. Recently, the co-op partnered with Dimensional Learning Solutions (DLS) to convert some of their current courses using the DLS adaptive platform to deliver interactive online courses to its students. “As students develop needs throughout a course or choose a direction based on interest or motivation, they are assured success,” says Morris.
For instance, with math, students are given options for pathways based on their interest, and there are ongoing tests to check learning. If they don’t master a certain level, it’s reintroduced in a different way, and students are often offered virtual manipulatives to work through problems.
[Image source: Dimensional Learning Solutions Manipulative Math Tool]
SCSC is redeveloping some of its career and technical education courses in partnership with DLS to include adaptive, hands-on components. With some classes, students first receive the content through online instruction and then visit an industry setting to get work-based experience to apply what they learned online.
In an online career health course, students learn about an ultrasound in a prenatal unit with a reading, video and toolkit online, where students manipulate the tools on the screen to perform procedures based on what they just learned. In another lesson, students may have to move around a clinic through a virtual environment with a registration desk before moving on to the portal with questions. “They get the full experience, as you would have in the real world,” says Morris. “Those have been embedded into the courses to further give kids something engaging to check their learning as they move along.”
[Image Source: SIMTICS Ltd.]
Shifting to “Learning by Doing”
Becker of NMC says just as the role of the teacher is switching from “sage on the stage” to one of a coach or guide, there is a shift from rote learning to active learning. To foster skills of teamwork and collaboration, online education is incorporating group projects and hands-on labs to help students think more critically and retain the content.
Building on the concept of “learning by doing,” online education is expanding to connect students from around the world to learn together and meet professionals. Morris is also executive director of the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, which partners with more than 200 cultural organizations, such as art museums, to offer real-time interaction with experts in various fields. This exposure can help answer student questions about the relevance of a geometry class, for instance. “To answer the questions of why you are doing it is key,” says Morris. “[Students] are motivated when they understand and have a reason to understand the material.”
Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling With Personalized Learning
Schools need to embrace technology and active learning in the classroom as standard practice and toss out the “sit-and-get” model of teaching, says Carrie Morgridge, vice president and chief disruptor with the Morgridge Family Foundation, which funds grants for educational technology in schools.
The foundation rolled out thousands of interactive whiteboards in Colorado schools and now supports maker space initiatives to give students a hands-on way to experiment, build and invent. “We need to make sure our students get what they need now, and what they need now is personalized learning,” says Morgridge. “We’ve seen kids break through the glass ceiling. … Personalized learning allows students to go at their own pace. We are no longer holding kids back, we are accelerating them.”
Because creativity is so critical to success in the 21st century, alongside online education Morgridge says more schools are exploring the maker movement, using 3D printers and allowing students hands-on interactive experiences to “learn by doing.” “Kids learn when they want to learn,” says Morgridge. “In this maker space, kids are learning deeper because it’s relevant to them. Learning is personalized.”