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Can Everyone Be a Successful Online Learner?

Posted on Monday August 6, 2012 by Michael Keathley

Education Week contributor Ian Quillen’s recent interview with Leslie Fetzer, 2012 National Online Teacher of the Year, was full of inspiration and hope for online education (13 June, 2012). In the piece, readers are sure to be excited about some of the points Fetzer makes about virtual education and its potential to work well with everyone, even the at-risk and special needs students she primarily works with as a high school biology teacher. It’s hard to not to agree and share her enthusiasm as she makes the following points:

• Faculty should focus on being good teachers first, and the online modality second.

• Teachers must personalize their instruction, getting to know their students individually and building community collectively.

• Community building easily extends beyond the teacher and students in a single class to include colleagues, parents, and other interested constituents. Education becomes a collaborative process.

• Subjects such as science, English, and humanities, each have their respective challenges, but these may be overcome with various types of delivery options.

• Each day contains some repetitious activities (e.g., grading); however, more time is devoted to meeting the individual needs of students in a variety of creative ways.

• The one-on-one opportunities afforded by online learning as opposed to face-to-face (F2F) classroom learning provide teachers with the opportunity to connect more with all students, especially those who are at-risk or who have special needs. (13 June, 2012)

What perhaps won me over most of all as a reader was Fetzer’s focused comments on “meeting the needs of students with disabilities that have [individualized education programs] and 504s [plans under the 1973 rehabilitation law], both in inclusion classrooms and in mainstream classrooms. Because … this is the population that has been left behind a little bit when it comes to online education” (13 June, 2012).

In spite of these inspirational points, their reasonableness, and my own dedication to online learning, the headline of the interview and the stated theme of the post that “all students can be successful online” are a bit troublesome. I would like to believe there is a “one size fits all” modality that will reach all students whoever they may be, but I know this is not the case.

Simply stated, online learning is not the best or even a possible option for all students.

Lack of Access
In order to be successful online students, regular access to a high speed Internet service and any necessary software and hardware is needed. Additionally, the availability of troubleshooting assistance is needed, as technology doesn’t always cooperate with users. Unfortunately, not all students have access nor can all school districts afford to provide access for everyone, especially in this time of deep budget cuts.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2009:

• 97% of teachers had computers in their classrooms.

• 54% could bring a computer into their classrooms.

• 93% of the classroom computers had Internet access.

• 96% of the computers brought into the classroom had access.

• 5.3 to 1 was the average ratio of students to computers at the K12 levels.

• 40% of teachers reported they or their students used computers in their classrooms often during instructional time, while 29% used them sometimes.

• 23% of teachers reported that they or their students used computers in other parts of the school often, while 40% reported doing so sometimes.

Although there’s a temptation to see the high percentages of equipment existence as a sure sign that much teaching and learning is being done online, these statistics imply that perhaps teachers are providing and utilizing the Internet more than the schools are providing technology and students using it. The fact that less than half of teachers are using the available technology in schools nationwide indicates there is more behind the numbers.

For instance, many of us who have taught at the K12 levels know that a computer in a classroom doesn’t mean it’s up-to-date enough to use for all instructional needs; Internet access may also be at too slow of a speed to meet the needs of elearning. Similarly, a ratio of 5.3 students to one computer does not allow everyone the access needed to be successful online or even to develop the digital fluency needed to achieve their goals. Access to the Internet along with computer hardware and software in the schools impacts student usage outside of school, too.

In fact, research by the non-profit organization Data First corroborates the above concerns about incomplete access and currency of equipment inside and outside of K12 schools. Additional interferences come from the digital divide within which, for example, there is a 50 percentage-point gap between home computer access between middle ($75,000 annual household income) and low ($20,000 or lower) income families. Similarly, 78% of white students had access to a home computer while only 48% of African-American students do. The gap between states is similar, with school access to a computer ranging between 70% and 30%. Only about 30% of teachers surveyed felt they were adequately trained to use and implement available technology in a pedagogically sound way (2012).

Without access for all, everyone can not be a successful online student.

Characteristics of (Un) Successful Online Students
Another large area of concern even if excellent access, hardware, and software exist at school and at home, is the characteristics online students typically need to succeed. The Alexandria City Public School District posted this list of six characteristics of successful online students:

Self-motivation — Students can direct their own learning environment and methods to fulfill course requirements and achieve individual academic success.

Independent learner — The online environment enables students to learn at their own pace, relieving the stress of feeling rushed or pressured and providing enjoyment in the learning process.

Computer literate — Although it is not necessary to have advanced computer skills, students should possess a working knowledge of electronic e-mail, the Internet, as well as basic keyboarding skills.

Time management — Students must be able to organize and plan their own best “time to learn.” There is no one best time for everyone, but the key to learning is to make the time to learn.

Effective written communication skills — Students must use electronic e-mail and discussion forums to communicate with their peers as well as the instructors. The ability to write clearly to communicate ideas and assignments is essential. This method provides the learner with rapid feedback as well as a means to inform instructors of any concerns or problems that they may be experiencing.

Personal commitment — Because there are no bells that begin and end classes, students must have a strong desire to learn and achieve knowledge and skills via online courses. Making a commitment to learn in this manner is a very personal decision and requires a strong commitment to perform in order to achieve academic success. (2012)

Having worked online with students from the 4th grade through the undergraduate levels, I concur that these descriptors are accurate indicators of online student success. However, they are not characteristics that everyone possesses, especially within the K12 age range.

The ACPS also express that students should not good candidates for online learning if the:

• Student does not meet the profile of a successful online student.

• Student requires a remedial program not an entire course.

• Student will not have reliable access to the appropriate computer hardware.

• If taking an online course is not the student’s choice. Students should desire to take course(s) online rather than having significant adults choosing the online course for the students. (2012)

My assumption is that perhaps in the excitement of her role as the 2012 National Online Teacher of the Year, the successes she and her constituents have achieved, and an early interview that provided perhaps one of her first chances to share her worthy platform, may have contributed to a bit of hyperbole in this interview. Although it is a bit of a concern to publicize a superlative stance like “all students can be successful online,” certainly there is nothing to fault when it comes to Ms. Fetzer’s enthusiasm for our profession. In fact, given the work to be done in getting all students access to a high quality education that includes electronic literacy, I am pleased to have teachers like Ms. Fetzer on the front lines of education advancement.

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