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Annie Bennett: iNACOL Panel Reaction

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Before attending the iNACOL e-Learning Caucus held on Tuesday, I have to admit that my thoughts on virtual learning were utterly wrong. The truth is, when I thought of anything regarding “online schools,” I imagined a child sitting alone at home in their pajamas, wading their way through curriculum with only the companionship of a computer screen. Instead, listening to the panel speak about their involvement in the virtual learning and competency based education movement, I began to realize how wrong my pre-conceived notions had been.

Rather than a focus on using snazzy new technology or simply placing a child in front of a computer screen, the virtual learning movement is based around the notion of flipping the education system to be completely student and outcome-based. Proficiency-based education, a term which I was not familiar with, means that only when a student shows proficiency in a subject or unit do they move on, making time the variable and learning the standard. E-learning, therefore, has much less to do with the coolest new app on an iPad or the latest gadget and much more to do with an individualized approach to education that makes sure that every student is empowered to gain the knowledge and skills they need.

Once the idea of competency-based education is introduced, it almost seems common sense. Why should we set goals of mediocrity for our students when they have the potential for so much more? And how can we expect a student who receives a poor grade in 4th grade math to have the foundation they need to be successful in future courses? Instead, a cycle of failure perpetuates that leaves students feeling inept and hopeless, while teachers who are already strapped for time are expected to successfully teach students material to which they have no foundation. Proficiency-based models have huge potential because students are clearly individual learners- what takes one student three weeks to master could take another three months. Time may differ, yet doesn’t the student who takes 3 months to learn an algebra concept still deserve to have these concepts under their belt?

Each panelist had impressive success stories of their individual e-Learning models, yet this is not to say that online learning presents no challenges. So much of what I learned from high school came from involvement in sports teams, leadership positions in extracurricular activities, and general social interaction with my classmates. Blended learning models exhibit the ability to integrate these seemingly revolutionary competency-based learning techniques while allowing the majority of students to still receive the benefits of a traditional experience. Combined, the effect could be powerful.

Achievement gaps can be recognized not just at the end of year after a round of tests, but each and every day based on the progress made by students. Teachers can then be fully equipped to see where each individual is struggling and what areas need more attention. Yet, it is important to actively provide chances for group work and student interaction. The examples provided at the iNACOL event included various group projects, and I believe that this is vital. Individualized based proficiency learning models could be hugely effective, but we must be careful not to sacrifice interaction.

Overall, virtual learning is opening doors that could be revolutionary in the way we view progress and the potential of every student. If we truly believe that every child can succeed, we must push to shift to a system that refuses to settle for failure or mediocrity, knowing that our students are capable of more.