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Can young students learn from online classes? April 9, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, older son, teaching, younger son.
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The New York Times is covering online classes in the ‘Room for Debate’ column. It’s interesting reading the commentary from the debators because at least half of them are talking about online learning in the abstract. That is, they’ve got some ideas about what it should be like but haven’t had much experience with it.

Over the course of my kids’ schooling, we’ve experimented with a lot of different curriculum, some of which has been online. My personal opinion is that online learning is that you really can’t say much about this topic without first defining what you’re talking about. “Online learning” is very vague. Does it mean you’re talking with people online about your homework? Are you working with completely automated curriculum? Do you have feedback from a teacher? You need to know how to answer these questions before giving an informed opinion.

My first experience with ‘online learning’ was not good at all. About 7 or 8 years ago, I enrolled the older boy in an online program called “Trent Schools”. They sent ‘lessons’ on a regular basis which I later found out were simply repackaged sections from the “What Every 2nd Grader Needs to Know”. It was incumbent on me to think of how to explain these things to my son as well as work out ways to practice. Given I could’ve gotten the book and done exactly the same thing, it really wasn’t helpful at all. It sort of embodied the worst aspects of ‘online learning’ – no interaction with other students, no feedback for the student, nothing to practice, no guidance for the parent.

I was burned on the concept, but when the older boy started attending a gifted program in Minneapolis, I was introduced to it again. The program had kids work on several of their subjects using online educational programs. Specifically, they used Rosetta Stone for foreign language and Aleks for math. The first thing I learned (and I suspected this already) is that Rosetta Stone is not great for a beginner. However, once you have a bit of a language under your belt, it may help you improve. I’d use it as a study aid, but not as a curriculum entirely in and of itself. So much of foreign language, to be really good, depends on having a teacher with a good ear who can provide you with feedback. Without that, you’re probably spinning your wheels.

The older son made little to no progress using Rosetta Stone. However, many of his classmates did, so maybe there is some aspect of this that I’m missing.

On the other hand, I’ve been hooked on Aleks. I find that funny because the same complaints I had about Rosetta Stone, another parent had about Aleks. However, for my kid, it seems to really work. The older boy did pre-algebra and algebra 1 through his old school using the program. With just that background, he received a 500-something on his SAT quantitative score last fall. When we came back to Fargo and began homeschooling again, we opted to use the same program. The older boy doesn’t always like the explanations, but he is able to do the vast majority of his math with no oversight from me. The program regularly assesses his knowledge and reviews concepts he seems to have forgotten.

And did I mention we threw him into college-level algebra and trigonometry?

The program has a large review section, so he was able to catch up on any review he needed by skipping geometry and algebra II. He has the option of taking ACE credits for the course, as well, so some colleges will say he’s met his math requirements (unless he needs to take calc – but frankly, I’m not going to deal with that one).

I admit that he needs help from a real human being sometimes, but I appreciate that he can progress at his own pace. And I can definitely tell he’s learning a lot. Even when he asks for help, it’s pretty obvious he understands what concepts are necessary for understanding the topic and is able to explain things. And given how much he really dislikes math, I think it’s amazing the progress he’s made.

The younger boy started math through Stanford’s EPGY program this year. There are two options – one where you are assigned a tutor and they provide updates to your school while the other is simply progressing through the program and assumes that the parents are overseeing the learning. The second option, open enrollment, is probably ideal if you’re homeschooling. It’s also a lot cheaper, too.

He loves the program. Given he was claiming to dislike math, I was expecting a struggle. We decided to give it a try, however, based on positive feedback from others. It’s not been a struggle: he is very willing to sit down and do a 20 minute session nightly. He treats it like a game, and it gives positive reinforcement when he gets things correct as well as giving him the opportunity to correct his mistakes when he gets things wrong. Although he’s not very far into it, I’m impressed that they’ve managed to introduce variables and complex topics like balancing equations into lower elementary math. They start out at a very basic level and step things up gradually, so the only help he’s needed from me is when we have java glitches. His favorite part is that he can progress as fast as he likes, and he likes to be able to skip problems.

In both math programs, learning is adaptive. Assessments are done more regularly in Aleks than EPGY’s program. But my overall feeling is that math is probably one of the best candidates for ‘online learning’.

In the fall, the older boy will try taking some writing classes through Johns Hopkins. As far as I’m aware, there’s not much of this that will be automated. The classes will involve either interacting with the teacher and classmates on a web-based message board, meaning students will progress as a group, or emailing with the teacher, which can result in more personalized instruction. For writing, I’m guessing this is the best format for language as it provides the feedback he needs. I’m really not sure you can use online learning in an automated format for something like this, so there’s no way you can dispense with the teacher. One huge advantage to this method, however, is the medium: the older boy struggles a lot with handwriting, but can type easily. This is far less frustrating than having to compose things by hand, as he would do in a normal classroom.

Based on these experiences, I think online learning can really benefit some kids. Even in the best case, it’s good to have an adult to help out when necessary or to set and enforce some guidelines as far as how much time is spent on the programs. If it’s done right, online learning should include regular feedback and assessment and, because it works at the kids’ pace, should be minimally frustrating.

The biggest advantages, from my perspective, are that students aren’t stuck working at the pace of those around them, slower or faster, and they can take time to master the concepts they don’t understand while skipping over those that they do. It will work better for some topics than others, but there are ways to do many different topics well in an online environment. When using this type of teaching in school, it will be important to have teachers that can deal well with an unstructured environment. If all the kids are working at their own pace, the teacher needs to be a facilitator and can’t count on prepping the night before so that they understand the material. I can see that dealing with kids working at different levels might be more difficult for classroom teachers as they may need to learn to work on several topics at once.

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