The Online Classroom
Neat little desks sitting in neat little rows, tucked in front of a stage from which knowledge was dispensed. That’s the type of “school” that most of us started in. These days, however, across Minnesota and beyond, learning is generated more and more from an online system that brings it to whatever place a student finds convenient and practical—from the farming communities of Houston County to the suburbs of the greater metropolitan area.
Developing and operating online schools starts with many of the same challenges as a traditional model. But innovations, alternatives, and connecting partnerships define Internet-based learning like no other method.
“It’s not about taking your syllabus and making a PDF, it’s about using the tools and environment effectively,” says Jim Wold, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence at Capella University. Minneapolis-based Capella is one of the largest online universities in the world with more than 36,000 students.
Capella’s experience and track record show how popular this option is, but also points to how the online experience is unique. Capella originally started as the Graduate School of America, offering graduate-level correspondence courses. “In the mid-’90s we started looking at delivering in different ways,” says Wold. “We were accredited by the Higher Learning Commission as an online institute in 1997. It was really new at that time.”
It is the expansion of options that makes online learning so attractive for many students. “We’re providing families with choices, when going to a traditional school may not be working for them,” says Justin Treptow, head of school at Minnesota Virtual Academy (MNVA). This Minnesota accredited K–12 school started as a project of the Houston Public School District in 2002. “Students may have medical issues or other issues. If parents don’t feel that public schools are meeting their child’s needs, we provide another option,” he adds.
Meeting Students Needs
Minnesota Virtual Academy differs from the for-profit Capella University in that it receives state education money to operate, but it also focuses on an alternative market. “[Online learning] isn’t for everyone—when we talk to families that call us we make that clear. We are here to give families choices,” says Treptow. But their student population continues to grow despite very little advertising. “The biggest part of our marketing is word of mouth from our families,” he adds.
“There seems to be enough variety and different approaches so that students who are disenfranchised or not having their needs met can find something that works for them,” says Bill Glenz of MTS Technology Highschool. This has created a market-like approach to education that stands in stark contrast to the traditional model.
“Our counselors hook up students based on what works best for them,” he says. “Some students move around a lot or have issues that come and go for various reasons. This gives them options to maintain their status and stay connected. Maybe one semester here, one online.”
What really distinguishes on-line schools from traditional approaches, however, are the many different partnerships that they develop. The experience that MTS has with bridging different schools as well as advising parents and students how to make the best use of resources is also an important part of the Capella University model.
“When we started it was about convenience,” says Jim Wold of Capella. “Today it’s about being nimble enough to bridge the skills gap and really deliver.” The majority (80 percent) of Capella’s students are in graduate programs, and the median student age is 40. “Being aligned with the standards of the industry and building networks is really important. We are doing more and more pre-enrollment assessment for two reasons—to see if the learner is motivated and to match up the talents with the opportunities in the business world.”
Treptow sees that his students are getting ready for the workforce through online education—a key component of what they will experience their entire working life. “A lot of learning takes place with technology in many areas. It’s very intertwined. We work hard to be sure that our kids are ready for a workforce that never sleeps,” he says.
The Bottom Line
Beyond providing alternatives to an education market that is becoming more diverse, the bottom line for everyone in the on-line learning field is the bottom line itself. “What parents like best is that education is most beneficial when we don’t associate learning with time,” says Glenz. “Online education doesn’t do that. You can take whatever time you need to grasp the concept.” MNVA students take the same state assessment as everyone else and the program happily invites anyone to compare their results.
Capella University goes even further, building course assessment and career achievement into their continuous improvement plan. They see this as a critical part of meeting the needs of their market. “It’s about people who are already employed and balancing their lives while they take the next step. It’s really about the ROI for them,” says Wold.
For this reason, instructor development is a critical part of Capella’s model. The process of continuous improvement starts with how they find and ultimately hire new instructors. Wold becomes enthusiastic when he explains their system. “People come to us to be instructors with real world, practical experience. We have a 3-week facilitated course where they get the basics of teaching. They then have two quarters of supported instruction where we are looking at them and make a hiring decision. We look a lot at the feedback piece.”
Beyond even their own course development, Capella offers this model to all of education as the key to meeting students’ needs. For example, the following is stated on “Shaping the Future of Higher Education” the school’s blog devoted to public policy and education:
“To develop rational policy and enforcement, the critical starting place is data, measurement and transparency of outcomes. These factors will create an environment in which needed innovation can take place.”
Online learning is definitely a key part of the innovation in education that will define the future. New models offering choice to students will not only improve learning but also be a key part of life-long career development and transition. Assessment and evaluation, along with proper counseling of students, will continue to increase in importance as the market for education develops.
But online learning is not a developing innovation for tomorrow—it is a key alternative that many Minnesotans have come to rely on today. It already stands alongside the traditional classroom as a viable option for connecting students to the knowledge they need to be successful.