Get Started With Online Learning

So, You Want to Get Started with Online Learning… Five Questions to Get You Started

Online and blended learning - as vehicles for both teacher and student learning—are expanding exponentially across the globe. As one who advises educational entities - schools, school districts, universities and ministries of education - about online and blended learning, before taking the plunge into the deep waters of e-learning, I think it is critical that educational institutions first begin by asking some very fundamental questions.

Here are the five I would ask:

Question 1: Why?

Why - besides the fact that everyone else is doing it - do you want an e-learning program? What problems will it help you address? Are you trying to address problems of demand, limited physical space, or scheduling conflicts? What goals will it help you meet—more academic diversity, credit recovery, or the ability to offer accelerated programs and/or degrees? Beginning with why gets you to the important follow up questions of who, how, when, what, how much, and what if?

Question 2: Who?

Who is your intended audience? Teachers and/or students? What kinds of teachers (a certain subject area, all subject areas?) Which students? Gifted and talented students, AP students, all students, credit recovery students? Knowing who your audience is and targeting online programs to them can also help you determine the type of e-learning you want (short course, long course, seminar, online tutoring via Skype). Who will teach these courses? Who will design them? Who will maintain your system? The most critical part of “who” is this - Is there enough demand among your intended audience to justify investing in an online or blended program?

Question 3: Can you afford to do it (or not do it?)

Do you know what the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) will be? Do have the budget to support both the capital and operational costs associated with online and/or blended learning? This is a huge consideration that often stops the best-laid plans in their tracks. US school districts have been hit hard by budget cuts, and states and districts fund technology in different ways. In Massachusetts, where I live, many towns (i.e., school districts) have no technology budget and to raise funds (by raising property taxes above the automatic annual 2.5 percent increase), they must ask voters to approve an override. On the other side of the ledger, what are the opportunity costs for not starting an e-learning program? Are there certain courses or programs that could be delivered more cost-effectively online (versus face-to-face)?

Question 4: How "ready" are you for e-learning?

It’s important to find out how “ready” your school or district is to support an e-learning program. Can your current network support the streaming video and live videoconferences of an online program? Do all users (students and teachers) have access to reliable robust equipment and necessary apps and software in school and at home? Do students and teachers know how to be successful online learners? Surprisingly, many schools and districts don’t ask such questions and find out that the answer to one or more is “no.” An overloaded and slow network and/or a lack of access to well-functioning equipment undermine the goals of an e-learning program and frustrate everyone.

Question 5: Do you have a technology plan or an e-learning strategy?

While US states are required to submit both a state and district plan (for e-rate funding), from what I see many state and district plans are simply pro forma exercises in compliance. But a well thought out technology plan or e-learning strategy can help address the four questions above. It can help schools and districts lay out a vision and goals for teaching and learning supported by technology. It can identify key areas, such as professional development, that are necessary for a successful e-learning program. A good technology plan, and a good technology planner, can do for a school or district’s e-learning program what a good financial planner can do for finances - it can help schools and districts take stock of where you are with technology, identify critical gaps, develop steps for moving forward, and create metrics for success.