At least 48 of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, offer some form of supplemental or full-time online learning to students within their boundaries. In Iowa, as some schools grow and others continue to shrink, the opportunities students have in relation to where they live are diverging greatly. In this sense, online courses can provide some students the opportunity to take classes that were otherwise unavailable. Moreover, distance education can help meet the needs of specific groups of learners from Advanced Placement students to those seeking alternative credit.
I had a conversation with the Director of Iowa Learning Online, Gwen Nagel, to talk about distance education and online learning. As with most issues in education, nothing is black and white. Distance education has its strengths and weaknesses. One thing is certain, however. Online education will most certainly have a major role in the future of education in Iowa.
That said, here is what Gwen Nagel has to say.
Q: What is your definition of distance education?
A: Distance education is a form of education in which teaching and learning takes place in a setting where the sources of the content and often the teachers are separated from the learners by distance. It is also often referred to as distance learning, online learning, e-learning, and digital learning. Learning may be synchronous, when instructors and students are present at the same time or asynchronous, when they are not present at the same time.
Q: What do you see as the greatest strength of online learning?
A: Online learning can provide equitable access, regardless of a student’s location, to master teachers and professional experts, as well as a rigorous and expanded curriculum including Advanced Placement courses, credit recovery courses, and multiple language opportunities. In the best of scenarios content can be accessed by students at any time and from any place.
Q: Are there places in online education that have room for improvement?
A: Those involved in online education must be vigilant in assuring and maintaining the rigor of online course content, the continued professional development of online teachers, and the ongoing support of participating students.
Q: Are there any common misconceptions of online education?
I find that there are several common misconceptions relating to online education. One is that online courses are easier to teach and easier to take. They are neither. The teacher must understand the pedagogy of teaching at-a-distance versus face-to-face. Teachers must also work very hard at providing timely and continued feedback to the student, as well as keeping them engaged and highly motivated. Students will find that online courses require a great deal of time and self-discipline, An additional misconception is that students can/will be able to move easily through the courses on their own without the support of their district of residence and/or family. There may be technical, academic or personal issues that arise. Iowa Learning Online (ILO), the Department of Education’s virtual school initiative, requires that each student must be supported by a “student coach” provided by the district or residence. ILO also recognizes the value of continued communication with the student’s family.