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Online Learning in U.S. High Schools: Lessons Learned from…Snow Shoveling


Online Learning in U.S. High Schools: Lessons Learned from…Snow Shoveling

By Gov. Bob Wise

Like much of the rest of the east coast, I had been essentially trapped in my house for almost a week thanks to back-to-back winter storms dumping unprecedented amounts of snow. It was somewhere during the second day of seemingly nonstop snow shoveling that I gained an even greater appreciation of online learning.

There are the traditional homebound activities all designed for preparation: stocking up on groceries, draining outside water pipes, laying out flashlights and candles for possible power outages, and putting shovels in easy reach of the back door. In whiteouts, blizzards, and high winds, neighbors across the street may as well be fifty miles away.

But after only two days in, I realized that this was not my parents’ blizzard where the only interaction was between edgy family members increasingly showing cabin fever. First, there was little time lost from work. Working collaboratively online all week, our entire office drafted and sent out a major funding application as well as completed, proofread, and published a major issue brief on online learning. We even finished editing the first of the Winter Olympic video clips that began airing on the Alliance’s website.

Second, despite the weather barrier to crossing the street, I had plenty of personal contact outside the house via Facebook and email. I shopped on the internet as well as researched for upcoming publications. Even when there was no power, I shared photos, information, and research on a smartphone.

Similar to those of us who were isolated from the outside world during these recent snowstorms, there are millions of American students facing a variety of barriers often isolating them from receiving a quality education. Our urban students may live in the shadows of great education and economic institutions, but far too many still attend high schools where graduation is not the norm. Rural students may have to travel fifty miles across a mountain to visit a museum or other off-site learning experiences. Perhaps a suburban student has a particular course of study that her school is simply not able to meet. Or the limited availability of qualified Chinese instructors restricts motivated students from studying one of the world’s newly dominant languages.

Since shoveling snow is best done when the warming sun is overhead, I quickly identified several hours I could not be online; similarly, fixed class schedules often do not accommodate a student’s needs to work or be involved in other important activities. With online learning, the customary rigidity of time yields to flexibility. Online instruction permits student-teacher interaction at almost any hour.

Finally, there are some times when reality can no longer be ignored, and something has to be done differently. My winter epiphany was after the second massive storm in a week; everything I had arduously shoveled out was now buried again under three foot drifts. Physically, I simply could not do it again. Then I saw three men coming down the street with shovels. My longstanding tradition of going it alone yielded to contracting with them to dig out the snow and ice-encased cars while I took on the more manageable sidewalks and steps.

As argued in the Alliance for Excellent Education’s newly issued report, The Online Learning Imperative: A Solution to Three Looming Crises in Education, there are some basic realities that educators and policymakers can no longer avoid. One is the impossibility of getting high-performing content teachers into every low-performing classroom, particularly in time to make a difference in this generation of secondary school students. A large percentage of teachers are retiring in the next decade, retention rates for newly-hired teachers are abysmally bad, and in course areas like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), qualified teachers are hard to find, recruit, and hire. Because of these reasons, we need to accept that we may not always be able to get that “highly qualified” content teacher in chemistry for every chemistry classroom.

Now enter online learning programs that join high quality content and instruction with a teacher in the classroom who effectively guides the students. World-class content, which can come literally from anywhere in the world, is “blended” with effective pedagogy. And, I predict that the old maxim of “the best way to learn is to teach” results in these classroom teachers also mastering the online content so they eventually are “highly qualified” in both pedagogy and content knowledge.

There are many other applications for online learning from credit recovery to virtual schools to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. And as Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and head of the Innosight Institute recently pointed out to me, online learning should reasonably be held to even higher standards than traditional brick-and-mortar instruction. Reimbursement can be based on student performance, as is the case with Florida Virtual School, not simply on traditional inputs.

For many of our students, every day is a constant snowstorm: slogging through inadequate schools, family issues, poverty, and limited course offerings. What winter’s blast taught me this last week is that being online can overcome many traditional barriers of being snowbound. I learned, I interacted, I produced. And I did it all according to my time requirements. For our nation’s students, educators, and policymakers contending with a massive blizzard of education challenges, quality online instruction can be a powerful snowplow.

To read the Alliance’s new issue brief on three crises faced by policymakers and the role of overcoming them through online learning, go to

For additional research and case studies about online learning, visit the websites of the North American Council for Online Learning (iNACOL)and the Innosight Institute.

Categories: Gear: Use of Time

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