Thursday, September 13, 2012

Online Learning: New Opportunities for University-School Partnership

The Obama administration set a goal that, in order to sustain a workforce for the global information society, 60 percent of high school graduates in the United States should continue their educations to earn a college degree.  Since most high school students who are eligible for college admissions already continue on to higher education, this goal requires that we greatly increase the percentage of high school graduates who are, in fact, qualified to enter higher education directly out of high school.  This may be the most important challenge that both our schools and higher education must face in the coming decade.   Meeting that challenge includes an incredible opportunity to re-vision the education continuum to better fit it to today’s society and, in the process, an opportunity to further integrate online learning into what may well be the new mainstream.
A Quick Look Back
            Let me begin by describing a historical analogy, for there once was a system in virtually State to ensure that schools had access to media-based learning resources.  From the 1960s through the 1980s, when technological change made the system untenable, public television stations worked with local school districts, state departments of education, and regional and national public television distributors and networks to ensure that all schools had access to high quality media-based learning materials across virtually all disciplines and grade levels.  I am not proposing to bring back this structure; however, a quick review of this once-vital system may help to identify some major elements that should be built into new collaborations around e-learning.
            Most public television stations had a formal relationship with school districts in their viewing areas, and a professional staff to support selection and support of programs designed to be used in the schools.  In my experience at WPSX-TV (now called WPSU-TV, Penn State’s public television station), the organization was the Allegheny Educational Broadcast Council (AEBC), a nonprofit membership organization that maintained a management contract with the station.  Membership fees (based on student headcount) funded some central staff, the cost of providing teacher guides for series, professional development for teachers, and the cost of maintaining the consortium itself.   Staff included a “utilization coordinator” who visited schools to help teachers learn how to use series in their classrooms.  Each member school district appointed a representative who serve as the main contact with the station.
            Every spring, the station would broadcast previews of programs so that the member schools could review them and vote on programs that they would like to use the following year.   During the school year, the station’s daytime schedule—from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.—was devoted to broadcast of these programs for use in local classrooms.  The Pennsylvania Department of Education centrally funded the cost of licensing television series for the daytime “in-school” schedule.  In addition, they often funded production of new series that addressed unmet needs.  As a university-licensed station, WPSX-TV worked with faculty from a variety of colleges to develop series on topics that included elementary science, Pennsylvania history, art, and our most popular program, What’s in the News, a weekly social studies series that engaged viewers in essay-writing contests. 
            The in-school service was a multi-level collaboration.  Similar arrangements existing across the United States, varied based on the nature of the public TV station (for instance, whether it was licensed to a school district, a community college, land grant university, a state network, or community organization).  It was driven nationally by the Public Broadcasting Service and state and regional public broadcasting networks that facilitated program acquisition and distribution.  In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Pennsylvania Public Television Network brought instructional TV coordinators together into a statewide committee that included representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
A New Kind of University/School Collaboration
            Today, universities involved in online education have the opportunity to forge new relationships with schools to ensure that more students graduate from high school prepared to succeed in postsecondary education.   Services that universities can provide to schools include:
·      Repackage content from their own online courses as OERs that teachers can use in local school classrooms.
·      Seek out OERs from other institutions that meet the needs of teachers in participating school districts.
·      Offer appropriate online general education courses as dual enrollment courses with local schools and, where needed, identify appropriate courses from other institutions that can be offered locally to schools.
·      Develop and offer complete online high school courses in college-prep areas, such as STEM, where local schools are not be able to provide courses locally.
·      Develop, in collaboration with schools and local employers, accelerated degree programs that begin with dual enrollment courses, in addition to summer courses and internships with local employers that give students a head start toward a degree.
·      Provide in-service training to teachers in participating schools on how to use online educational resources in their classrooms.
·      Serve as a clearinghouse for online professional development courses for teachers and other school personnel.
Needed:  A Business Model
            Many colleges and universities are already doing some of this—offering a few dual-enrollment courses, for instance.   What is needed to realize the full potential of university-school collaborations is a strategic approach that encompasses most or all of the elements listed above.   While we can learn from the public broadcasting experience, we should not expect to simply re-create that model.  Today’s online learning environment is far too decentralized and diverse.  For some institutions, a purely local initiative could be successful, sustained by revenue from tuition fees and/or OER use fees.   However, there are areas where a national effort could stimulate more activity and encourage quality.  A national clearinghouse could help institutions and local schools find online high school courses, OERs, and teacher education courses, for instance.  It could also share effective business models for university-school partnerships and models for sharing OERs, helping to stimulate local activity.
            This is an issue that should be high on the agenda for our national associations and for foundations that are committed to supporting innovation to help schools meet STEM goals and to produce graduates who are ready to move on to higher education.