Distance Learning

In 1999, I was applying for a teaching position in the Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools. The first interview was at the high school. After the interview, I asked if I could walk around the building a little before leaving. I had never been there before, and wanted to take a look around. School was out for the summer, and I was given permission to roam the building.

I quickly realized that most of the classrooms were locked. I poked my head in the cafeteria, noted how small the library was, and then found that the only unlocked room was the distance learning room.

The WorldIn the front of the room were four TVs where one would normally find the chalkboard. Facing the screens were tables with seating for 16 students. In the back of the room were four more screens, so the teacher (who stood beside the monitors in the front) could see the same video as the students.

The room allowed simultaneous connections with up to three remote schools. The four locations could all see and hear each other, thanks to cameras and microphones in each of the rooms. The teaching station had a touch-screen computer for controlling all of the electronics, as well as a document camera, VCR, and a few other gadgets.

I later found out that this room was used four times per day. We had teachers teaching reading and accounting in the room, with students participating in the classes from remote schools. We also had students taking AP Calculus and Japanese with teachers at remote schools.

It was fortunate that I had looked at this room. A week later, in the final interview for the position, the superintendent asked me one question. “We are in a distance learning consortium that allows students to remotely take classes for which there is not sufficient enrollment to justify a class at their home school. What do you think about this technology and its potential?”

I told him that it was a waste of time and money. I pointed out that it takes the worst model of teaching and learning — the teacher standing in front of a group of students and lecturing — and propogates it across a wire. It does not allow teachers to break students into groups. It does not allow the teacher to confer privately with a student or small group of students. It simply allows the teacher to lecture to the whole group. I told him that asynchronous models held much more promise. While the teachers and students wouldn’t be seeing each other in real time, they could interact much more productively in online forums, which encouraged reflection, discussion, and debate.

He disagreed, but hired me anyway. Last week, we sat at the same table during the new teacher luncheon. He has less than a week left before retirement, and it was probably our last chance to talk before his departure. He asked about the distance learning program.

It’s still there. We stopped teaching classes in it four years ago, because we can only fit 16 students, and the teacher would have to have an additional planning period. We still allow students to participate in remote courses, but this year, for the first time, we have to pay the other schools for them. The equipment is aging, and the consortium will be switching to an IP-based system next year. Our district will have to decide whether to make the investment and continue participating.

In the meantime, the asynchronous, Internet-based model of distance learning has taken off. Most colleges offer courses online. Some charter schools do, too. In our schools, we’ve used tools like Moodle to expand our existing courses, teaching parts of them online. As early as fourth grade, we have students logging in to their classes from home, participating in online discussions, accessing resources their teachers have selected for them, and completing and submitting assignments electronically. While we’re not teaching any courses entirely online yet, it won’t be long before we do.