Universities and other institutions of higher education have been putting their courses online for over a decade but the growth of e-learning for elementary (primary) and high school (secondary) students is relatively new. The explosion of new e-learning tools, forums and platforms -- both free and with varying degrees of cost -- speaks to the need that online learning fulfils for 21st century schoolchildren.
There are numerous reasons that schools are incorporating more online learning in their classrooms. Even though e-learning programs demand that each child has his or her own laptop or tablet, entire school districts are investing in the equipment because they believe that, in the long run, the children will perform better and learn more than they do in a conventional learning situation. The United States Department of Education's Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices of Online Learning reviewed 50 independent research projects and concluded that online learning is more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction.
Some of the reasons for expanding online learning include:
- It's cheaper. Even taking into account the cost of the laptops/tablets and access to the online programs, online learning requires fewer staff members and no text books.
- There are more possibilities presented by e-learning programs. Teachers can set up lessons that are asynchronous (independent learning), synchronous (group learning) or blended.
- Classes can flip. Flipped classrooms are becoming more and more popular, especially in high schools where the students are more capable of learning independently. In a flipped classroom the students review pre-recorded material online and then do the "homework" in the classroom where the teacher is available to assist.
- It's easier to adapt online learning to varied learning styles than with conventional learning. Students who learn online tend to automatically adapt the learning strategies to their own particular learning style. The teacher's time is not occupied with developing different techniques for individual students since the students can adapt the materials to their own particular learning style on their own.
- Online learning is flexible. If a student must be absent from the classroom for a period of time, s/he can easily access the material and complete the assignments online.
- Homeschooling parents have more opportunities to present their children with more and varied information and materials. Homeschooling kids can also connect online and engage in a virtual classroom while enjoying all the benefits of a homeschooling environment.
The benefits of online learning are no longer in question. The role of the teacher in the online classroom, however, is not always clear. Many education professionals, parents and community members are curious about how a classroom teacher facilitates an online lesson. Many people wonder, if the lesson is online, what does the teacher do?
Interestingly enough the teacher's role in online learning is as important as ever. The teacher creates the lesson, facilitates it, guides the students and evaluates their successes in the same way that teachers have always worked. Effective teachers:
- create new learning environments that allow the students to explore and experiment, think critically, reflect, work creatively and create new knowledge.
- make learning more effective by using customized tools that aid preparation and programming assessment
- customize learning experiences
- build partnerships beyond the classroom
Teachers in an e-learning classroom adopt new roles and skills but continue to serve as the central figure in the student's learning. As educational leader Lowell Milken has noted, "The most direct and enduring way to reach the mind and imagination of the learner is through the mind, imagination and character of the outstanding teacher." This holds as true in the e-learning classroom as it ever did.