(Cross posted to the Powerful Learning Practice blog.)

So what does the following list suggest to you about the value of “online learning”:

1. I can work ahead if I’m able to
2. I get nearly instant responses from my teachers
3. I get personalized support when I need it
4. My teachers are just as excited about online learning as I am
5. I can do all my math for the week on one day if I want to
6. I know how I’m doing, my grades are right on the screen
7. My parents can see my work and grades
8. My courses are more challenging
9. I can keep up with my work when my family travels
10. I can work around a busy schedule

Those are the “benefits” touted by a group of Utah sophomores in this Huffington Post piece by Tom Vander Ark, ones that apparently impressed senators, representatives and school board members. I’m not as impressed.

Sure, taking a course online may offer more individuation and student choice in how to manage the process, but at the end of the day, I wonder what those online students have learned more or better than the ones who took the course in a classroom. And if we’re touting the online experience has superior because kids can take trips and still do the work or because their teachers are excited, that speaks to bigger, more fundamental issues that aren’t being addressed. This is still all about content delivery,  old wine in a new bottle that’s being motivated more by economics and convenience than good or better design. And it’s about, as I mentioned yesterday, a growing business interest that sees an opportunity to make inroads into education as “approved providers.” Hmmmm.

Learning online is not about finishing the course requirements a few days early or answering the questions that the text or the teacher dictate. It’s about finding our own path through the material.  As I asked in a comment on the post, do students practice inquiry in these settings? Are they able to ask their own questions? Are they assessed any differently? Do they create any new knowledge in the process and, if so, is that knowledge shared anywhere? Does their experience in the course replicate real life in any new way? Does it teach them how to learn on their own? To go deep? Not that any of that shouldn’t be taking place in face to face classrooms as well, but if you’re going to suggest something as different…

My point is that if this vision of online learning is being touted as reform, why? What’s really different here? Obviously, I’m a big believer in the value of online networks and communities to support lifelong and lifewide learning. The work that Sheryl and I and our amazing colleagues have been doing with PLP attests to fact that there is another way to learn online aside from digitizing a curriculum. We have goals and outcomes for our participants, but we don’t say to them “here is the path, work ahead if you like, and your grades will be posted online.” We let them find their own way, supporting and prodding as needed, trying to keep them moving in the general direction of shift. With any luck, they experience the change in their own way, on their own terms.

Not saying there isn’t any value to offering classes online. But if we do, let’s make sure they take advantage of the online piece to let participants develop the connections that will sustain them far beyond the class. Or, if not, let’s call it what it is…online coursework, not learning.