Learning in online environments is no longer a new idea. Around the world, in classrooms and in homes children and adults of all ages are learning in both structured and non-structured environments online. People from three to 73 are successful online learners. People who predict disruptive innovations have said that by the year 2025 over 50% of all the education in the world will be done through computers. Changes present problems. If you change too early the new idea may prove to be a bust and there you are, having invested in an idea that quickly deteriorated. I remember the man in charge of technology at Columbia telling my class in the early 90’s that online learning was not paying off – putting the content materials up online was too costly and too quickly out of date to ever be profitable. Of course you know now that these challenges were overcome. Universities with online platforms are the fastest growing anywhere in the world, and online schools for younger children are quickly gaining in importance, especially for children who live in remote areas, speak a language different from the country in which they live or who have difficulties socially with other students.
This article discusses how action research might be used to help parents, educators or concerned citizens design the successful integration of “new paradigms” of educational ideas (online or other), materials and content with traditional schooling- making the ideas of change within education less of a trauma and more of a seamless, integrated process. As I have written in other articles, it often seems challenging to average people to take on ideas that come from research, nonetheless the three steps in action research of discovery, action and reflection will seem familiar as indeed they are. What may be new will the unique blend of how they interact in the process to make seemingly difficult things become simple. This allows us to move ahead and make changes in your educational design that may not have previously been considered.
During the discovery phase you learn about the attributes of both the paradigm or model that you are currently using and the one that you are considering for adoption. To use the redesign of schools as an example you might ask the following questions then go to the web, other people, professional journals and books, etc to find a range of ideas as answers. Notice that in the following list you look for both the positive and the remaining outliers who still may not be served by the known models.
- What type of student learns best online? In the classroom? In a blended environment?
- What type of student is not likely to learn in any of these?
- What are the implementation costs of each model? Who pays?
- How do these costs amortize over time? How does that compare to how the content becomes outdated?
Armed with answers to these and other questions that you feel are important for schools in your community, you set up a graphic organizer to help guide your decisions as to what changes you want to make to improve your schools. Across the top of your table you put the styles of education (both those that you are doing and those that you are considering). Down the left edge you list the attributes you are looking for in your ideal educational type. The end result will look like many lists that you may come across comparing the features on a product – and just like when shopping you chose the model that best suits your needs.
As you were listing the attributes of your current schools against the ideals you were interested in striving for you were also establishing a baseline of what you currently do and don’t have. Armed, with solid ideas of what is working elsewhere that you want for your own community you are now ready to take the first actions toward making change. Remember three things are almost always true about change: it takes longer, costs more and is more frustrating to implement that we think will be true when we start – that is where the second two steps take of action research help. In the measurable action step you keep good records and twice a week you jot down what you have done and what the results were. As an example for a school reform project you likely need more partners to help you succeed. The first actions may include going to see important people, discussing your ideas and the discoveries you made in the discovery section. Before you leave you will ask for their help.
Twice a week (often enough you won’t forget the details) you make note of what you did and the outcomes. Pretty soon you will see patterns in the responses you get and you will refine what it is you are doing, also increasing the likelihood of success. Your bi-weekly notes give you some advantages: First they keep you on track, making it hard for a week to go by and nothing happens. Second, you find success faster because your note-taking ensures you notice the details that help. Third, you lose your fear of trying new strategies as they all become just more data about what worked and what didn’t. Finally, and without necessarily noticing it your notes will give you a sense of satisfaction that you have really tackled this hard problem and are making progress.
It is likely that your ideas will not completely change education as you know it in your area. Our systems are doggedly conservative because all the people involved come with their own history of how things were done before now, defaulting to that easily. The more complex the system, and education is one of the most complex and the harder for sweeping change to take hold in a sustainable fashion. That doesn’t mean your reform steps won’t make a great impact, only that but both your new ideas and those that you want to replace will live side by side. What is required is for leaders to be able to do this type of analysis in order to bring new ideas to their organizations without losing the stability created by the more familiar ones.