Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Reasons to Move to Online K-12 Education Are Growing


When this blog first started in 2007, our mission to promote online learning for everyone everywhere at little or no cost was aspirational. Fast forward 15 years (to October 2022), the infrastructure for mass online learning generally exists and the reasons for moving in that direction are ever more compelling.


In our last blog post, we talked about the teacher shortage facing US K-12 schools as they reopen for in-person fall classes. School administrators seem focused on potential solutions that have the potential to water down the learning experience (increasing class size, reducing in-class student time, using less qualified individuals as teachers), with few schools turning to online options for providing the missing instruction.


Recently, the US K-12 public school system was given a D+ grade based on failing infrastructure. Many schools, especially in low income neighborhoods, have no air conditioning as temperatures rise to unhealthy levels due to climate change. Some schools have no heat, leaking pipes and crumbling buildings. Others have bug infestations. The go-to solution for these infrastructure problems is to find scarce public funding to renovate and rebuild. No schools seem to be looking at totally rethinking how to provide public education to avoid the infrastructure problem altogether: moving the education online.


One common argument against online learning, especially for younger students, is that in-person connection is critical to helping children learn to work well with others, to know how to  behave in a community. I’m going to push back on that argument and suggest that interpersonal skills can be addressed through online instruction, and are also addressed well through family interactions and extracurricular activities. In the business community, there is increased recognition that in-person contact is not the only way to develop connection and a desired group culture. Paying attention to interpersonal connection, being intentional about promoting that skill and opportunity, is highly effective.


I believe, however, that the biggest resistance to online learning is fear of change. Many school districts pivoted to online education during Covid. This was done under time pressure, so the results are not necessarily ideal, but they were a good first step and demonstrated that providing universal K-12 education virtually is doable. The lessons learned from these crisis experiments can prove useful in designing a more effective online education system of the future.


A family can choose to do online learning now. The amount of available materials is overwhelming. Tuition-free online public school exists as an opt-in endeavor (examples here and here). There are free curricula for homeschoolers (examples here and here). Subject-specific courses are available online to supplement the existing in-person school curriculum (state-by-state available courses here).


But, for now, it’s up to each family to decide whether to pursue online learning for their children, and the in-person public school system continues to struggle. Here’s hoping for a future where our mission has been accomplished, and all K-12 students can go to school online and excel.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Disaster or Opportunity? In-Person Schools Reopen Amidst Severe Teacher Shortage


The end of summer is almost upon us and signs of school reopening are all around. Store sales on school supplies, ever-increasing hourly pay to hire school bus drivers, packed campgrounds as families take that one last summer trip. And I’m seeing article after article after news story about the “catastrophic” shortage of teachers to staff in-person classes.


What and where is the shortage? There is no hard data (yet), but the estimates are huge. The state of Nevada has over 3,000 unfilled teaching jobs. Illinois has over 2,000 teaching positions that are open or filled by inadequately trained people. The largest five school districts in Houston have as many as 1,000 openings for teachers. The lack of teachers is especially dire in certain fields like math or special education, and in rural schools.


What’s causing the teacher shortage? There are many reasons being posited. Teachers are exhausted from dealing with the Covid-induced education chaos. Some are unwilling to teach within the new state-level politically motivated constraints about what topics can be covered in the classroom. For example, Florida has recently enacted legislation prohibiting teachers from covering many aspects of our country’s racial history. And, of course, there is the fact that teaching is no longer a highly respected profession in the US and teachers generally receive very low pay.


What’s being done about it? Some school districts are going down to four days a week of classes for the fall, while others are increasing class size. Some jurisdictions are lowering the requirements to be a teacher, in some cases encouraging veterans and college students to step into the classroom despite having no training to do so or having school administrators serve as substitute teachers. At least one state will allow teachers with experience teaching math at private schools to teach in the public school system while gaining the requisite certification over the next few years. US President Joe Biden has recently announced initiatives to recruit additional individuals to the teaching profession. And, if they have the resources, some schools are increasing teacher pay or providing other desirable benefits (e.g., a relocation bonus for teachers willing to move to their state, a retention bonus to entire teachers to stay on the job, classroom supplies). Very few schools seem to be looking at online resources, but Tucson Arizona is filling its void of math teachers with online tutoring during the school day.


This situation is alternately described as “catastrophic,” “severe,” “alarming” and “a crisis.” Many education specialists are concerned that the fixes for the shortage (especially increased class size and less qualified teachers) will provide long-term and irreversible harm for the students and their learning. They are probably right. It is also possible, however, to look at the situation as an opportunity to institutionalize, improve and expand some of the online educational options piloted during the two years of the Covid pandemic.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Teaching Reading Online


Many young children in the US are behind in learning how to read, especially after 2+ years of online or hybrid learning during the Covid pandemic. A New York Times article cites to studies showing that “a third of children in the youngest grades are missing reading benchmarks, up significantly from before the pandemic.”


The general disruption of learning caused by various school districts’ on-again and off-again teaching during the pandemic is one cause for this situation. Another primary cause for reduced learning of reading skills, however, is a lack of phonics and phonemics awareness teachers. And the teachers that have the necessary background to teach reading basics are often going to higher-paying jobs like tutoring.


As the pandemic continues into its third year, we can assume that many young students will still be learning online. So, what are some strategies to increase the effectiveness of teaching reading online?


One first grade teacher reflected on which strategies work best for her in person and created analogous systems for her online classroom. In person, the teacher would split the students into small reading groups, and work with students one-on-one as needed to work on specific skills. For online classes, this teacher recommends using two devices (one showing the book being read, and one for personal interaction with the students) to simulate the interactivity of reading together. She also splits her students into smaller reading groups based on reading level. Whiles these small groups are working together online, the teacher makes sure that she works one-on-one with each student each week.


Another in person strategy was sending students home with physical copies of the book they were working on, to encourage additional practice at home. This can still be done with online learning, perhaps providing digital access to books as an alternative to sending home physical books. The teacher also added a more structured approach to reading practice during class and regular comprehension checks. She created opportunities for each student to read out loud daily (she actually kept a checklist to make sure she had heard from each student that day). In addition to reading out loud, the teacher also asked questions to test comprehension. Questions like: What does that word mean? What is the author trying to tell us? What is happening in the story so far?


Education Week cautions against relying blindly on the effectiveness of existing online reading programs. While it may be easy for the teacher to have students complete online reading modules, the online programs will not necessarily identify learning challenges. “Good teachers will also try to identify misunderstandings in real-time. Is the problem that a child doesn’t understand that the letters “s-l-e-d” form the word “sled?” Or is the problem that the child doesn’t understand the concept of a sled?” A University of Michigan professor has developed a series of videos to help teachers provide this student-centric approach to remote instruction of foundational reading skills.


Shifting from teaching reading in person to teaching it online (or in a hybrid format) obviously takes a lot of time and mental energy. Resources are available here, here, and here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Studying Physical Therapy Online


The university I used to work for recently announced its first hybrid doctoral program, a PhD in physical therapy. Very exciting, but really, physical therapy (PT)? It’s physical therapy, so doesn’t it need to be taught physically, in person? That’s exactly why the University of Utah created a hybrid program. The new program, starting in May 2023, will offer asynchronous lessons to cover basic concepts, weekly synchronous online student-faculty meetings, 1-2 weeklong in-person on-campus immersions each semester, and clinical placements near each student’s residence. The intent of the hybrid program is to empower students from any location to participate, while also honoring the practicality of the subject matter.


In the US, you need a PhD in physical therapy to be a licensed practicing physical therapist. That got me to wondering, are there other online PT programs? How do they handle the hands-on nature of physical therapy?


University of St. Augustine offers a “flex” physical therapy doctorate program. It combines online classes with in-person practice at clinical simulation centers (every weekend, with a choice of five campuses in Florida and Texas) and immersive virtual simulations.


Andrews University in Michigan offers a “transitional” Doctor of Physical Therapy program. Students in this program participate in in-person short courses, as well as independent study and distance learning.


The University of Southern California in Los Angeles offers a hybrid doctorate program. Students will attend classes on-line and in person, and can complete their clinical rotations in their local community.


Arcadia University in Pennsylvania offers a hybrid physical therapy PhD program. Students participate in live synchronous online classes and eight immersive in-person experiences. Additional clinical experiences will occur in  one of 250 facilities in the institution’s international network.


University of Michigan/Flint offers a transitional physical therapy doctorate program that is completely online, but does not lead to licensure. Courses run asynchoronously. Clinical experiences can be completed in the student’s local community.


Shenandoah University in Virginia offers a transitional physical therapy PhD program that is primarily online. In addition to an extensive online curriculum, students attend a short in-person class before graduation and must complete a capstone project (to build on their existing professional life).




Wednesday, June 15, 2022

At Least One US City May Be Building Its Own Internet Network


We’ve written before about universal broadband access, cost-effective access to the internet for all. The US federal government has pledged $95 billion to help close the digital divide. Private internet providers have offered a variety of reduced cost options to provide internet access to low income families. Rural areas will be building the infrastructure to physically expand the reach of the internet.


All this activity may not be happening fast enough or encompass a wide enough population for some elected officials. The City of Baltimore intends to build a city-wide broadband network to ensure that its large low-income population will have affordable access to the high-speed broadband services they need for jobs, education, health, and quality of life.


Other communities are already providing low-cost broadband services by treating it as a public utility. That means rates are regulated to ensure that access is universal and profits are kept to a sustainable level. A list of US communities with municipally-owned internet providers can be found here. Other communities provide free wi-fi within their boundaries, allowing anyone to use the internet for free. A list of international communities providing free wi-fi can be found here.


It will be interesting to see what additional creative ways communities come up with to provide their residents with the cost-effective internet access necessary to thrive in the 21st century.



Tuesday, May 31, 2022

 The Importance of Promoting Pro-Social Behaviors in Online Teaching

A recent study from the University of Missouri College of Education and Human Development

concludes that “students tend to be more motivated to learn and be engaged in the classroom

when their teacher likes and cares about them. Positive teacher-student relationships change

student behavior, and in this study, we found building those positive relationships actually

leads to better teaching, too. It changes teacher behavior.” The study results highlight the

reciprocal relationship of strong student-teacher bonds at all grade levels: bonding with

students makes teachers better and bonding with teachers motivates students to work harder

at learning.

It's not difficult to imagine how teachers can build strong student-teacher bonds in a brick-and-

mortar classroom, but what are some strategies to do it in a virtual classroom? Perhaps not too

surprising, the same strategies can work in both types of classrooms. You might just have to be

a little more intentional about it in the virtual classroom.

Strategies for pro-social teaching encourage interaction between the student and teacher that

extends beyond delivering content, and focuses on building an emotional connection and

allowing for student reflection:

 Use stories (narrative) to build empathy, perspective and critical thinking.

 Use service learning to practice important academic and life skills.

 Catch people doing what you want them to do, and praise that behavior.

 Welcome other people’s perspectives on a situation, and ask the student to explain or

justify the other perspective.

 Cheer someone on when they’re about ready to give up.

 Practice gratitude in the classroom (gratitude is a mood-enhancer.)

 Encourage random acts of kindness (to increase compassion and a sense of inter-


 Teacher can model vulnerability (to build empathy, kindness, and self-forgiveness).

 Equip students with the language of compassion.

There are courses educators can take to learn and practice some of these strategies. You can

even become a Certified Humane Education Specialist (CHES), with the course of study provided

all online.

The University of Missouri study and my research into strategies for pro-social learning confirm

what I’ve always observed in the classroom: teaching is about so much more than lecturing.

When a student (at whatever level of school) is encouraged and challenged to think critically

and empathetically, and when the student’s unique perspective is valued, their learning and

ability to put learning into action are greatly enhanced. Teaching to facilitate this type of

learning is possible, just not (yet) the norm.

Written by Michele Straube  

Friday, May 13, 2022

Verizon Wireless Offers Free Small Business Training and Coaching


I got an email from my wireless carrier (Verizon) the other day that was really intriguing. It read: “Join our free learning program to help you succeed in a digital world. Over 30 personalized learning courses, small business peer networking and even grant opportunities. Best of all? It’s free.” I clicked on the “Don’t Miss Out” button and here’s what I found.


Verizon’s Small Business Digital Ready program has the goal of helping 1 million small businesses “thrive in the digital economy.” The program includes free courses on subjects like search engine optimization (SEO), working remotely, and finance management (e.g., good credit management). It offers one-on-one and group coaching and mentoring with experts from your industry, as well as networking opportunities with other small business owners.


A success story is highlighted on the program’s website. A food truck owner in Philadelphia took a Social Media 101 course that was personalized to her business, helping her market her food truck better and attract a larger clientele. 


Verizon is also offering $10,000 grants to small businesses. Applicants must complete two courses or coaching events between January 1 and June 30, 2022, and must apply for the grant by June 30, 2022.


You can register for the Small Business Digital Ready program here, email, or call +1(800)-916-4351.


I looked quickly to see if competing wireless carriers are offering anything similar. T-Mobile offers small businesses $200 to spend on digital advertising, apparently limited to Facebook. I didn’t find anything for AT&T or Sprint.