The Internet is the Answer for School Reform–Or Not

Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

The Internet is the Answer for School Reform–Or Not

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A friend of mine sent me links (via Slashdot which I occasionally read for the articles myself) that he thought were an interesting contrast.

We are seeing a lot of growth of online education these days. Universities are putting curriculum on the Internet by the terabyte. Virtual schools are becoming options for credit recovery and taking courses that are not offered in local schools. In industry the move to provide education and training in the form of webcasts and videos appears to many to be the answer to supporting customer and employee training easily and inexpensively. It all seems so perfect. But is it?

Talking to friends who are teaching online courses results in tails of high drop out or non-completion rates. Students are not doing the work online just because it’s not in school. Why not? I have some ideas. Students don’t go online to work – they going on line to connect with their peers. They go for fun. Putting school online doesn’t instantly make it fun. And worse still it doesn’t have the same connected feeling that a bricks and mortar schools have for students. Deep down though students are not as good with the Internet as we’d like them to be and are often far less capable than the adults in their life think they are.

Bill Gates blames poor textbooks for much of our US education issues. He thinks that great presentations by great teachers can and will fix that. I think he’s overly optimistic. In theory great video and better text and the chance to work around their own schedules feels like the answer but perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. I think that if good books were the answer we’d be in better shape. While one can easily criticize textbooks libraries are full of great books. Kids have access to these books in town/city, school and university libraries just about everywhere they go. And didn’t Abraham Lincoln well over 100 years ago self-educate himself with books? Of course he did. But believe it or not, not everyone is Abraham Lincoln. Bill Gates is well known for self-educating himself on a wide variety of subjects and for being very well read. He’s pretty exceptional though. Most students don’t go out of their way to read books about things they don’t know or want to learn. No matter how good the books are or how exciting the videos are what is the incentive for a student to dig into them? They don’t have the motivations and intrinsic self-motivation that adults like Bill Gates has. In fact I suspect few adults do either. Great content, online or in paper books, is pretty useless if no one uses it.

One of the things that schools are not horrible at is forcing students to take subjects they don’t know they need or think they are interested in. On the Internet not only does no one know you are a dog, no one knows you are sleeping through class. Well they might wonder when you fail the exams but how do you keep track of students on a shorter term basis? And how do you convince students what to learn? You can lead a student to great sources of information but it is hard to make him learn.

In the long run Internet resources can be very helpful. They make great supplements. They make good entertainment in a good way with people who really love the material sharing that excitement. But as stand alone education making bricks on mortar schools obsolete? Not until the nature of children changes in a big way.



  • Online courses are interactive, which means you will get feedback from your instructors and peers, and possibly even more individualized attention as well. With distance learning, you are immediately connected with students from all over the world, and this can greatly enhance your learning process and experience, opening your mind to a variety of viewpoints.

  • I agree with Alfred that online learning needs to evolve quite a bit before it's "ready for the big time" where it becomes our #1 vehicle of higher education.  But having said that, I really agree with Bill Gates that we're going to see some MAJOR changes to our higher education system in the next decade.  Costs are simply growing too quickly (even at state schools), parents are less able to pay, and the current economy is making us more worried about seeing our kids graduate with $20k or $50k+ in student-loan debt as they start their careers.

    Unless college costs get under control, parents will increasingly question the value their kids are getting from an expensive college education.  Going away to college won't be the "no-brainer" decision that it is today for high school graduates from a "college-bound" curriculum.  This, in turn, will drive (indeed, is ALREADY driving) online education options to get better, and we'll likely see new education options that don't exist today -- For example, imagine new schools with cutting-edge curriculum and "hybrid" online+classroom options where online lecture components are attended by students worldwide, and supplemented by regional face-to-face meetings or online interactive onferences with instructors or local study groups or project teams.  That happens today in some schools, and is certain to become more widespread.  Plus I'm sure the options will get far more innovative than that!

    And fear not... Employers will realize that while traditional colleges are still producing excellent graduates, some of the best minds and most capable students are also succeeding with these new educational options.  And so the best of these new "online schools" (or whatever they become) will gain true respect from employers, their graduates will have the same opportunities as their peers in traditional colleges.  And sooner than we think, this will become a legitimate and mainstream educational option for even our top high school graduates.

    Right now, college tuition feels like the next "bubble" that will have to burst, doesn't it?  Compare to the recent housing "bust": For years, housing prices were going up much faster than people's incomes, most people always assumed "home prices can never fall", and something had to give...which led to the US housing market crash.  Is today's world any different?  --> College tuition is going up much faster than people's incomes, and many of us parents still have this prevailing assumption that "my high school grad MUST go to college".  Guess what?  Something HAS to give!  The only question is:  What's going to become the "new" post-secondary education?  There will be tremendous opportunities for organizations, institutions, companies that will become part of this new education "wave".

    My kids' ages are 6, 4, and 1.  I fully believe that by the time they graduate high school, their options will be far different than were mine as a high school senior (and even much different from the options available to the Class of 2011).

    So TODAY'S internet may not yet be "the answer" for school reform, but look out!  The "education landscape" is changing, and I think we're just a few innovations away from seeing HUGE changes in the way we and our children learn.

  • Try to remember the best college (or high school for that matter) course you ever had.  Was it the topic or the teacher that made that course so terrific?  One of my best courses ever was a 300 level poetry course.  I was a science/math/CS major.  I took the course just so I would not be bored between class breaks, it fit my schedule and the professor said he would pass me if I showed up.  (I always looked up professors before I took any course.)  I was a little nervous about taking something so far out of my field and comfort zone.  At the time I could really care less about poetry but I ended up in Dr. King's office almost every day discussing poetry.  Dr. King made the course alive, the poets were pretty much dead.  I cannot even imagine what the course would have been like on-line.  How do you have an enthusiastic argument on-line?  Books and the internet are useful (duh) but they are no substitute for sitting down with a teacher and hashing out questions and answers.

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