Saturday, December 10, 2016

Virtually a Virtual Disaster

we've got to do something different

Virtual learning in educational settings is expanding exponentially. It's cheaper; it's more accessible to students anytime, anywhere, on any platform; it's touted as the answer to the highly circulated myth of the failure of the American public schools system; and in Michigan, it's the law. But it's not working for our high school students in Michigan and it's not working nationally. Unfortunately, because of the nature of academic research, most of the articles and studies I have found related to student success in online learning are all studies of higher education. There are huge differences between high school students and college students related to maturity, perceived power and control, choice, perceived relevance, apathy, long-term vision and goal-setting, self-efficacy, and self-control. Young adults are not "younger adults." Studies related to engagement and motivation and success in virtual higher ed environments are simply not applicable to high school students. We have to do something different. We are losing our kids to virtual classes and they are losing out on a quality, meaningful education.
Rob Kelly, in "Five Factors that Affect Online Student Motivation," posits that Brett Jones' MUSIC theory's factors of "eMpowerment, Usefulness, Success, Interest, and Caring" are the factors that contribute to student success. As per the usual, Kelly's discussion is based on higher ed students, not high school students. And in this way, the MUSIC theory misses the point: high school students don't see the usefulness of what they are "forced" to learn, and it doesn't matter how often they are reminded of "the real world," they don't believe or can't see what the real world is like. Therefore, the other factors of empowerment, success, interest, and caring are absolutely critical for high school students to experience, if they are to be successful in their classes.
Unfortunately, much of the virtual class offerings for our high school students offer none of the remaining MSIC aspects. So much of what the students experience is predetermined, checklist learning. Student interests and student choice are not factors in their courses; in fact, their voices are seldom heard. Much of the course offerings are instructor-free. Someone, somewhere, built a course and it now functions as software, not as interactive learning with human beings. As one of my former students (enrolled in and currently failing an online sociology class) said yesterday, "Sociology is about human interactions; wouldn't it make sense for a class about human interactions to have some?" In addition, the lack of feedback and the lack of interaction creates a student success vacuum: students only know if they got something right or wrong; they don't know why, or what errors in their understanding they have, or how to move in the right direction, or what they are doing well. There is no support, no sense of community, very little connection with their interests, and no caring. Even the students with a "real, live teacher" in their virtual classes report having very little interaction with the teacher and no sense of who they are as people. The interactions they have with other students are stilted and limited; they don't feel "real."
Something has to change. It's not enough for Milman (2011) to insist that students complete a readiness self-assessment before embarking down the virtual path; it's not enough for Kim et al. (2014) to insist that an LMS module that encourages student goal-setting and reflection be a part of the virtual experience; it's not enough for Kelly (and Jones) to tout the necessity for their MUSIC theory to be a part of the learning experience for students. High school students have different needs and different motivations than adult learners. They need to have that personal interaction, and we need to figure out how to make it happen. For my former student who is failing his online sociology class this semester, the solution is for him to bring his Chromebook into my classroom at lunch every day so that I can work with him and encourage him and high five him and nag him and make eye contact with him and remind him that he is worth it. Until virtual classes can figure out how to make this happen, I'll be spending my lunches helping their students try to find and maintain success.

"Those offering online courses should provide even more supports to foster the success of all learners. This assistance should involve completion of high-quality orientation by all students, examination, development, and implementation of effective strategies to support students in online courses, careful monitoring of the reasons why students might withdraw from online courses, factors that contribute to their persistence, and also research about factors that promote the success of all students" (Milman 2011).

  • Guo, J., Marsh, H. W., Morin, A. J. S., Parker, P. D., & Kaur, G. (2015). Directionality of the Associations of High School Expectancy-Value, Aspirations, and Attainment: A Longitudinal Study. American Educational Research Journal52(2), 371–402.
  • Kelly, R. (2012, August 10). Five Factors that Affect Online Student Motivation. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from­classroom/
  • Kim, R., Olfman, L., Ryan, T., & Eryilmaz, E. (2014/1). Leveraging a personalized system to improve self-directed learning in online educational environments. Computers & Education70, 150–160.
  • Milman, N. B. (2011). Is online learning for all learners? Distance Learning.