I’ll interrupt my blog hiatus briefly to note today’s article in the Howard County Times, “Coming soon to Howard County: a digital school system”. The headline is a bit forward looking, as what is happening seems to be equivalent to the Howard County Public School System dipping its toe into the water of online education. This is an area of long-time interest to me, and I’ll be watching to see where HCPSS goes with this.
It’s also an area much over-hyped, and I think it would be wise of people to keep their expectations in check. This is especially true since it’s not 100% clear to me exactly what the goal of this initiative is (beyond just being “high-tech”, which is not in itself a good reason to do anything). Is it to better serve students who (for whatever reason) aren’t doing well in a classroom environment? Is it to (at least in theory) allow for individualized instruction and mentoring of students? Is it to allow HCPSS to provide very specialized classes that could attract students from across the county but wouldn’t be of sufficient interest to offer at any one school? Or is it to improve productivity in the system, for example by supporting online class sizes larger than traditional class sizes? These and other reasons have all been advanced at one time or another for introducing online instruction into traditional education.
The one thing I hope doesn’t happen is for HCPSS to be seduced into some grand technological vision that involves spending tons of money for proprietary software, course content, and services. There are lots of examples out there of online education initiatives in the K-12 space, and many of them have done good work in terms of leveraging other similar efforts and ultimately providing a better bargain for taxpayers. One place worth looking to in particular is Utah, which has a number of initiatives ongoing, including the Open High School of Utah, an online charter school, and the Utah open textbook initiative, which will result in the creation of freely-available textbooks that can be downloaded at no charge, printed on demand, and even adapted and re-used by other school systems under liberal licensing terms.
Closely associated with both these initiatives is David Wiley of Brigham Young University, whom I think is one of the best commentators around on the general subject of open educational resources; check out Wiley’s blog for lots of good thoughts on this general topic, especially regarding how OER has to evolve in order to provide a more complete replacement for proprietary educational material (for example, the need for assessment tools). I’m looking forward to seeing what HCPSS does in the way of online education, and hoping they see fit to consider OER as part of their general approach.