Apodaca: Digital education finally finds foothold

In many ways, it appears that online education is at last taking hold.

Earlier this month, UC Irvine announced it would offer a selection of free online courses through an agreement with Coursera, a company started by two Stanford University professors. It joins a growing list of universities, including Caltech, Duke, the University of Michigan and Princeton, that have deals with Coursera.

Other online education companies are popping up, including edX, a joint venture of Harvard University, MIT and UC Berkeley, and Udacity, also founded by Stanford professors.

The trend stoked a controversy at the University of Virginia recently, when the president was dismissed, in part because she was slow to move on Internet classes. She was quickly reinstated, and UVA subsequently signed an agreement with Coursera.

Although it's far from clear how these ventures will make money, they are viewed as a means of expanding the reach of higher education to thousands of potential students worldwide. There's even a new acronym for the concept: MOOC, for massive open online courses.

In an age of slashed budgets, overcrowding and reduced class offerings, some public school officials also see online education as a realistic, cost-effective response. Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the struggling Cal State University system, has pushed an initiative to develop online classes to improve access and graduation rates.

But in the K-12 universe, the embrace of online classes has been sporadic.

Take Newport-Mesa. Our local school district has for years offered the same limited menu of online courses for high school students: American democracy, economics, health, and drivers education.

(Students who fail certain classes are sometimes given the opportunity to earn credit online.)

Online classes present an array of challenges and potential problems in the K-12 arena that have so far worked to limit their scope. Among the obstacles are teacher training, and how to address state and federal policies that mandate everything from funding to students' seat-time.

Collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions pose another complication. How are matters such as caps on "student contacts," for instance, to be handled in online education?

"Another area we've struggled with is in online there's an extra amount of work compared to face-to-face," said Jenith Mishne, education technology director for Newport-Mesa. Some online teachers find themselves answering students' questions late at night, for example, even though that's not required.

Moreover, more exciting and promising ways to utilize technology continue to emerge, including so-called blended and flipped classrooms. These methods, which I wrote about previously, call for a combination of online learning and face-to-face instruction.

"For the most part, blended is the way to go," said Mishne, although Newport-Mesa is also "looking to move toward offering more online classes."

Nationwide, critics see strictly online learning as a soulless enterprise that robs students and teachers of the personal interaction they consider crucial to quality education. Also, many publishers have been resistant because of uncertainty over how it would affect their profits.

Questions have also been raised about how to deal with cheating and grading policies in an online environment.

In Florida, online education was dealt a setback recently when the state Department of Education began investigating a company contracted to run virtual schools for 43 districts. The probe was instigated by allegations that the firm had used uncertified teachers.

"The general public thinks you just open a computer and it's online learning," said Steve McLaughlin, Newport-Mesa's director of secondary education. "There's a lot that goes into the formula. It starts to get very complex."

McLaughlin should know. He has helped oversee Newport-Mesa's shift to online registration, which began in 2011 with two schools, and this year expanded to all secondary campuses.

That initiative, which might seem relatively straightforward to an outsider, has involved a complicated mix of technology, community outreach, and formatting, access and privacy concerns.

Despite the challenges, the district managed to get about 85% of eligible students preregistered online, and 95% processed through the system by the on-site registration days.

Does the success of online registration offer lessons that could apply to the classroom?

Perhaps not directly, but it does make one point abundantly clear: We are now a highly computerized society, and whatever the obstacles, it's incumbent upon the educational community to capitalize on its potential.

In March, California State Supt. Tom Torlakson formed a task force to recommend an education-technology plan, referred to as "no child left offline."

In its report released this month, the task force acknowledged that public schools have been slow to respond to technological change.

"Children today are digital natives and use digital tools and technologies in their day-to-day world and are online all the time," it stated. The imperative for our schools, it said, is to accommodate digital learning "any time, any place, any pace."

Online classes also got a potential boost from a bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last week that allows schools to receive state funding for students taking courses online.

To our kids, for whom modern technology is as natural as breathing, all our teeth gnashing and debating about online education must seem humorously old-fogeyish. They understand instinctively that technology should be as seamlessly fused into learning as it is in their private lives. Online courses are an intrinsic and inevitable part of that evolution.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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