Thursday, September 30, 2010

Myths...Niches...Needs

By Mark T. Burke

Myths about what online courses are are at the tip of many educator's tongues.  Those myths have unfortunately become "truths" to many because there are too few of us communicating the real stories and honestly, there are too many organizations producing courses that meet the low standards of those myths.  To many, online courses provide options for the students that don't conform to some norm.  If a student doesn't meet the standards of social behavior, doesn't fit in, isn't smart enough, falls below AVERAGE, they should enroll in an online school, that's what I often hear.  In all of those cases, I say...GREAT...if an online program can meet those student's needs, good for us for being forward thinking enough to create flexible, student centered programs.

What I want people to know however, is that online courses are for ALL students.  In fact, when I was involved in the creation of one of the very first online high schools, I worked with students who fell across all lines of social and performance measures, struggling students, to those who excelled.  I often imagine how different online curriculum adoption would be if the myth were "Oh, online courses, they are only for really smart, over achieving students."  While it would still be incorrect, perception is powerful.

Niche vs core curriculum is a growing topic among my peers.   What is the world of online education best suited to deliver?  After 10+ strong years of K-12 online curriculum development, most if not all online schools have the basics, Math, Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science.  Chinese was one of the first "niche" courses that really started taking off.  Many schools did not provide Chinese, that's why it was called a niche course, certainly not because of the need for it.  Where do we (online schools) go from here?  If we all have the core subjects, what's next?  Obvious, I believe we MUST look to niche courses like music and the arts.  We must round out student experiences in online schools.  Most online providers do not have, nor will they invest in the staff to build niche courses.  Actually, I don't think they should.  I believe they should continue to develop best practices within the core areas and partner with niche programs like viaAcademies to build and deliver niche courses.  Niche programs have dedicated staff, focused on the art, or the subject being delivered.  As we think about what will truly innovate online education, I believe few are feeling it's the next Algebra course.  Innovation will come from niche organizations and their quest to ensure online students have more than core curriculum. 

Needs should always outweigh innovation for innovation sake.  We're in a wake up period in education right now.  How do we prepare tomorrow's leaders?  First, they have to be rounded leaders.  I've written several posts on the subject including this one...."The Creative Workforce...."  While STEM courses will remain ever important in our basic education, the needs for students to learn about themselves, others, to create, imagine, solve and innovate is critical.  I believe in the saying "Why should we expect different results from doing things the same way as we have been?"  Since it seems most of the news and events of the days are filled with economic troubles, continued bleak employment rates, growing concerns over health care and more, it's clear that education for us all must change.  We can only achieve based on what we have learned, experienced and the skills we have developed. Where do we do that? School.  I believe the system will not be quick to change at it's core, but those of us who can provide much NEEDED niche courses are flexible and ready to play our part.

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