A new approach to education — Richard Hartung
JULY 31 — At 10.30am in Seattle recently, a student was rushing to complete her high school project before the classmate she was working with went to bed. After all, it was 8.30pm in Jordan where her classmate was located.
Welcome to the new world of online learning at the Global Online Academy, a collaborative education programme for high school (secondary and JC) students which was featured recently in a school magazine published by Lakeside School in Seattle.
Set up last year, the academy enables students to take courses they would not usually have access to on their home campus. Fourteen high schools in the US, along with a school each in China, Indonesia, Japan and Jordan, are now part of the academy.
The educators who set up the academy were inspired especially by a talk by Michael Horn, co-author of “Disrupting Class”, at a National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) conference in 2010.
Horn had told participants that disruptive innovations such as mobile platforms and the proliferation of digital content, as well as integrated learning and social environments, could change education dramatically.
Lakeside School in Seattle convened a three-day session for interested schools shortly afterwards and educators who founded the academy worked together intensively to get it ready for its launch barely more than a year later.
Amid a plethora of new online learning programmes such as Coursera and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Open CourseWare, where students watch lectures and study independently, the academy takes a different approach.
What it wants to do, Global Online Academy director Michael Nachbar told NAIS last year, is to bring together students from all over the world to collaborate so they can share ideas and perspectives, learning from and with one another. On-campus courses are still important, though, and online classes are to supplement and “not to replace the great teaching and learning that happens in our schools’ on-campus classrooms”.
While the number of courses is still small, the subjects go beyond what are available in many schools. In September, for example, students can select from 18 courses, including “an introduction to bioethics” and “using geographic information systems to solve global issues”.
While it has not been entirely easy for students and teachers to adjust to a new way of learning, they are positive about the academy. Lakeside students told their school that along with getting to take new classes and building closer relationships with their classmates than they thought possible, they also boosted their technology skills.
That said, they also found that taking online courses required tremendous motivation and self-discipline. Punahou School teacher Emily McCarren told her school that teaching courses online is exciting and she is now figuring out “not just how can we do what we have always done well online, but how can we truly innovate our support of student learning through this environment”.
The critical question is whether online learning works. While there’s still limited research on the effectiveness of online classes and much of it relates to tertiary education, initial research results are encouraging: The Sloan Consortium found last year that, among other things, more than two-thirds of 2,000 US tertiary academic leaders surveyed believe online is just as good as or better than face-to-face instruction. And iNACOL’s State of the Nation report on K-12 online learning in Canada last year said research findings showed there was no difference in average grades or educational effectiveness between e-learning and on-campus education.
In Singapore, the number of online programmes is still small. Hwa Chong’s Global Academy is leveraging web- and video-conferencing technologies and online learning portals, for example, and Nanyang Girls High School offers online courses such as pre-calculus with trigonometry. A few other schools are reportedly using online education too.
Along with offering students an expanded range of courses, institutions such as the Global Online Academy are powering schools into entirely new approaches to education.
While there may be limited opportunities now for secondary or JC students to study online, the benefits of online learning likely means it is only a matter of time before more schools here join the bandwagon for more online learning too. — Today
* Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.