I recently had the rare opportunity to spend a full day shadowing Karen Cator, Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. It was a day absolutely crammed with meetings but also with deep learning. As we ran from venue to venue, I wrote down the ideas and phrases that really resonated with me, hoping to not lose any of the great thoughts that are swirling around at ED—thoughts I want to come back to and explore further within my own practice. I share some of these concepts below in the hopes that they will stretch your thinking too. Perhaps they’re not the perfect answers but they’re a way to begin the conversation about the future of education and where innovation and research is needed.
The first concept I wrote down was that we need to “find a road between self-paced and a cohort model of online education.” I had always thought about online education as an either-or proposition. Either students are completely self-paced or they move together in a cohort model with other students at the same grade level. However, perhaps it’s possible to create a vision for something in between. What if students have a “learning positioning system” that guides their learning within a course? It shows them which standards are their weaknesses and which tasks they need to complete in order to improve on those standards. They come together with other students to focus on a particular concept and then move away from that group to other areas where they are weak. This type of model could blend the strengths of a self-paced program (individualization and customized pacing) with the strengths of a cohort program (group projects and collaboration) in a way that’s truly unique for each student. What a remarkable challenge for our future but also one that has immense potential for student learning.
The second concept I wrote down was the idea of “differentiated roles within education.” One of the things I love about my job is that I get to do it all. I’m a fully online teacher who is involved in course design as well as working one on one with students, teaching whole group webinars, and customizing for each student’s needs. Unfortunately I’m realizing that model won’t be scalable on a larger level. Perhaps we need to consider allowing educators to differentiate their roles. Some might focus on developing stellar courses. Then other educators can focus on teaching those courses, modifying for the needs of each individual group of students. In an increasingly specialized world, the future of education might hold even further specialization for teachers, leading to a completely new way of teaching and learning.
The final concept that I wrote down was the concept of a “teacher-heavy” online learning environment. The term shocked me at first. I had never considered myself to be in a “teacher-heavy” model. Don’t all programs rely heavily on the teacher? Unfortunately, some don’t. I think that moving forward it’s a great lens to use in thinking about the quality of online education programs. Those programs that are “teacher-heavy” a.k.a. have low teacher-student ratios, high teacher-student contact, and high individualization based on student needs are going to be those programs that have the highest level of success. Students need good courses and good systems but they also need good teachers who are guiding their learning.
As I said, these ideas are just the beginning of the conversation. I hope that we can work together to merge technology and high quality teaching, ultimately creating truly customized solutions for maximizing student success.
Read the US Department of Education’s National Technology Education Plan.