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Macon Richardson: Online and Blended Learning Panel Discussion

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The moderator, Susan Patrick, provided an excellent explanation of competency-based learning and technology’s potential to enhance individual educational outcomes. Patrick described a common dilemma in classrooms: students understand concepts and materials at different paces. But this reality is not reflected in traditional classrooms, where students move through curriculum in packs. The student who quickly understands concepts (e.g. the quadratic formula) must wait until his peers also understand those concepts before progressing to a new topic. As an advanced learner, he is disadvantaged and incapable of reaching his full potential.

More alarmingly, a student who fails to learn concepts before the class progresses develops “gaps” in his knowledge. For example, a student who fails to learn the quadratic formula before the class moves on to derivatives has little recourse to ensure complete mastery of the quadratic formula.  He has developed a “gap” in his mathematical knowledge; he does not understand a core concept. Competency-based learning offers a personalized approach to school, solving the dilemma of students moving through material at different paces. It empowers students to take their education into their own hands, to set the pace of their own learning and to ensure full mastery of material.

An advanced student can move quickly through material without being hindered by his peers. A student who struggles with certain subjects is allowed the time and resources to move slower through curriculum and to ensure full mastery of that curriculum. According to Patrick, blended and online learning is the best infrastructure for competency-based learning. Furthermore, blended and online learning can combat teacher shortages and a lack of AP classes in America’s high schools. Students are allowed more scheduling freedom. If a student runs the risk of failing to graduate on time, online learning can make it easy to gain credit. Patrick gave an exceptional presentation on the arguments for blended and online learning. However, her fellow and following speakers were lackluster. All represented virtual schools or non-profits. Their presentations seemed less inclined towards a discussion of “problem and solution”, and more inclined towards self-promotion. After the panel, I knew the organizations’ various success stories and anecdotes.  I did not know how the organizations’ implemented blended and online learning in classrooms and why that approach had created success.

Ironically, the panel was limited by the same traditional classroom time constraints the speakers lamented. The panel lasted only an hour, and its focus was narrow. The problem addressed in the panel, “students who are left behind, stay behind” is an incredibly nuanced and pertinent topic in education policy. The panel failed to reflect the complexity of the issue. Perhaps given more time, the speakers could have adequately addressed the issue and adequately discussed possible solutions rather than simply promoting their schools and non-profits. Not once were alternative methods of ensuring every student masters concepts raised. Even if the speakers believed online and blended learning to be the best solution, anyone who has written a college paper knows opposing views must be addressed, if only to be discredited. The discussion’s great scope raised many questions, but the narrow focus left those questions unanswered. For example, what does increased online and blended learning mean for teacher training, readiness and accountability? What consequences for students’ social development arise with such an individualized and isolated education? What does an increasingly personalized educational approach mean for grade retention and social promotion policy?