In my own research I have found it difficult to locate research regarding online learning in K-12 education, so I can empathize with Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) difficulty in finding sources of information that fit their meta-analysis criteria. However, I feel if they did not limit the meta-analysis based on their quantitative requirements and being number driven some interesting insights would have been found. Of course this report was not written with educators in mind, but policy makers and politicians. It is a government document. Although not a practical document if one is looking for a guide to online learning best practices, it does make the case that more research needs to be conducted before any formal conclusion can be made, especially regarding K-12 online learning. But one with common sense and life experience in the education system could probably draw the same suggestive conclusions that Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) did from their meta-analysis. The one concluding thought I did not expect to draw was whether teachers will be needed in the future like they are needed in the present. But lets start at the beginning.
I appreciated that Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) referenced distance education at the beginning of the report because it gave a historical basis for their research and a starting point to ask the right questions. Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) state:
Overall, results from Bernard et al. (2004) and other reviews of the distance education literature (Cavanaugh 2001; Moore 1994) indicate no significant differences in effectiveness between distance education and face-to-face education, suggesting that distance education, when it is the only option available, can successfully replace face-to-face instruction. (6)
This helped raise the question of whether this is true for online learning and face-to-face instruction too. The authors found that online learning like any other form of learning environment has its advantages and disadvantages. Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) found that the meta-analysis overall tended to point towards the positive “…with online learning (whether taught completely online or blended) [and] on average produce stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction” (18). Just like distance education pure online learning can be just as effective as face-to-face classroom instruction, but it is the blending of online learning and face-to-face instruction that had the most interesting and useful results from Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) meta-analysis. According to the meta-analysis the blended learning environment seemed to have more benefits and more positive outcomes than the stand-alone pure online learning and face-to-face learning environments. At the college level from my own experience both pure online learning and blended classes make no difference to me I will learn one way or another. I think in the K-12 learning environment a blended learning environment might work best. The blended learning environment will work best because it will cater to more learning styles and allow for more differentiation of material, content, and assessment. It would be more inclusive and hopefully provide fewer barriers to learning if done well. But as I have come to realize through my reflection this might be a selfish viewpoint and hope because I am a K-12 teacher. I have come to realize I may not be necessary in the future.
This leads to the best practice and recommendation from Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010), which is to use teaching methods that promote self-reflection, self-regulation, and self-monitoring. This is true whether teaching online or in a classroom. But notice how the best practice advice for online learning is to just let the students learn. They do not recommend teacher-reflection, teacher-regulation, and teacher-monitoring. Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) confirm this by stating, “Attempts to guide the online interactions of groups of learners were less successful than the use of mechanisms to prompt reflection and self-assessment…” (48). Can add another one, self-assessment not teacher-assessment. It was interesting when Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) suggested that some of the research states that the students in an online learning environment “…provide scaffolds for one another (Suh 2006)” (48). This raised a question I did not feel was answered by the report, is a synchronous or asynchronous online class more effective? Should an online learning environment have both? Does synchronous or asynchronous lend itself to this student scaffolding effect? If students can scaffold for each other how much teacher involvement should there be? Do we need teachers in an online learning environment? Reflecting on my own experience I find I benefit when both synchronous and asynchronous characteristics are present because it provides structure and freedom to learn at your own pace. Also in my past online learning experiences (and in class for that matter) I found it annoying when I was told what exactly to discuss and think by the instructor’s script instead of the instructor just giving us a starting point to go from for the discussion. Based on their meta-analysis Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) state that students’ learning experiences “…were less positive when instructor involvement was low…” and became “…more positive, up to a point, as instructor involvement increased. At the highest level of instructor involvement (which would suggest that the instructor became dominant and peer-to-peer learning was minimized)…” (53). Regardless of whether it is online learning or face-to-face the teacher has an impact on students’ learning and if that teacher does not allow students to reflect on their learning and own it the quality of the class whether online or not decreases. This research that some teacher involvement is good for the online learning experience has given me hope that in the very least teachers of the future will be guides.
After considering the report further by Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) I guess it is not surprising that what affects the classroom environment also affects the online learning environment. What works in one will most likely work in the other. The technological mediums used might enhance learning and provide more opportunities, but when it comes down to what makes online learning an effective learning choice it is the sound pedagogy behind it, but as we have read even that is changing and evolving. It is the proven teaching practices, the teacher-student relationship, and sense of community that holds a class together not the technology. Technology provides another structure to teach from, but ultimately it is sound teaching practices and learning theories that determine how good learner outcomes will be. What needs to be researched further is how to apply what we already know about learning and combine that with online learning tools to K-12 education. Then it needs to be decided how far it should be taken with the whole human and machine relationship that connectivism suggests. Should we have totally virtual schools? Should those schools be synchronous or asynchronous? Is a blended approach better? Or do we need both blended and pure online learning environments in order to reach all types of learners and their unique needs? Here is even a scarier question and thought. It was found in the meta-analysis that some research suggests students can “…provide scaffolds for one another (Suh 2006)” (48) in an online learning environment. If this is true do we need teachers and schools in the traditional sense if the future of learning is completely online? I encourage you to watch this TED Talk: Build a School in the Cloud, which will broaden your thinking about online learning in K-12.
Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department Of Education.