By Harrison Howe
A Slight But Meaningful Difference
By some indications, learning online can yield better results than conventional methods. And while technology cannot necessarily make a bad teacher better, it seems to enhance effective teaching. At least these are the findings of a 2009 report issued by the Department of Education.
Before anyone advocates shuttering schools and letting students get an education solely online, it should be noted that in 2009 those taking all online courses or a hybrid of online and classroom courses scored only slightly better on performance tests than those receiving only face-to-face instruction (the former scored in the 59th percentile, the latter in the 50th).
But many see that difference as significant, at least insofar as making a case that online learning does not fall short when compared to traditional learning methods, or that quality teachers can implement technology to the benefit of their students.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went as far as to say that the report 'reinforces that effective teachers need to incorporate digital content into everyday classes...' He added that technology 'can be leveraged in rural communities and inner-city urban settings, particularly in subjects where there is a shortage of highly qualified teachers' and that 'good teachers can utilize new technology to accelerate learning and provide extended learning opportunities to students.'
Diana G. Oblinger, president of Educause, a nonprofit organization whose mission, according to its website, 'is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology', told InsiderHigherEd.com in June 2009: 'Online education provides additional opportunities...for flexibility, for experiential learning, for illustrating things in multiple ways...'
The Full Picture Not Painted?
The 2009 study failed to focus on K-12 online education but rather concentrated its efforts on higher education, continuing education and even military programs. So it's hard to say whether the 'online learning is better than traditional learning' argument can really be decided for elementary and secondary school students.
In addition, there seems to be few studies that determine whether technology used in the classroom truly improves teaching at the K-12 level. While SMART boards and iPads can be used to enhance some subjects, it's hard to say with any certainty whether students are learning more efficiently or effectively because of them. True, these aids might help to better engage the students but a good teacher, it can be argued, might be able to do the same without the help of technology.
A 2009 study by researcher Robert J. Marzano, CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory, found that students were more motivated and even participated more in classrooms where SMART boards were used as compared to those where they were not. Marzano also concluded, however, that the boards were best utilized by good teachers who likely would have presented the material just as effectively without the technology.
So while the hybrid method of learning in postsecondary education is best according to the Department of Education, who's to say that this won't change as more and more technology is introduced into educational settings? Maybe one day it could be said that online learning for rural K-12 students, which has been increasingly utilized in rustic settings, might prove even more effective than online learning opportunities for college students.
Or maybe technology will eventually replace all teachers, good and bad. Ultimately, could students at all levels of education wind up utilizing as-yet-undeveloped technology to become their own best teachers?
While the use of laptops and whiteboards in classrooms is on the rise, the question has been asked: Is technology in schools really helping all that much? Some say there is no clear answer.