One of the many things that I love about my job is my freedom to attend national education conferences for the purpose of meeting with educators and commenting on trends and changes in the education system many of which are introduced, and explored at these conferences. I wish I could say that I could objectively report on the influences these conferences have on education, but my personal bias as a long, long time public educator prevents that from happening. I will always view these through the eyes of a classroom, public school educator. If after that introduction, you are still with me, here is my reflection on iNACOL Virtual School Symposium. This conference is described as The Premiere K-12 Online and Blended Learning Conference.
I have always been a fan of distance learning, beginning back in the day when we had to hook up modems to the computers for connectivity. I also remember the resistance by administrators when teachers tried to get professional development credit for taking online courses. It was often viewed as an attempt to game the system. When Administrative degrees began popping up as a result of online colleges, they were at first met with great skepticism at hiring interviews. Of course with the development of the Internet, and the wide acceptance by institutions of higher learning for online courses, there is becoming more of an acceptance in our system of education for virtual delivery of education.
The iNACOL Virtual School Symposium attracted some of the best of the best in this area to share with colleagues the positive aspects of this method of teaching and learning. This was done with over 200 sessions in a four day period of time. It was well-planned, and seemingly well-attended. Of course, I was struck by the ironic fact that this tech-oriented conference could not register attendees for a lengthy period of time because of network problems. Many of the educators that I encountered seemed to be administrators, or charter school educators. Public school educators may have been avoiding me. It does stand to reason that charter schools are taking a larger step in the blended learning model than public schools, so it is reasonable that they would attend in larger numbers. The lack of public school acceptance seemed also to be a theme throughout many of the policy sessions that I was able to monitor.
My criticism of this conference is the same criticism that many educators have of most professional, education conferences. There were not enough real classroom educators doing the sessions. This conference was vendor-driven. It was also very policy-wonk heavy. Many of the publicized business people who have injected themselves, as education reformers, into the national conversation on education were in attendance. I actually attended one of those sessions with one of those reformers. This particular reformer posed a plan in his session for more acceptance of online learning in the overall education system. Both he and another reformer presented their multi-point plan asking for comments and reactions. I could not wait to get to that part of the discussion.
These gentlmen described the plan in detail. This was how they were going to gain universal acceptance of blended learning throughout the country. These guys mentioned policy, vendors, providers, legislators, learners, students, and infrastructure. All of this was accounted for in their detailed, bullet-pointed, power-point-presented plan. There was, in my admittedly biased view, only one thing missing from this comprehensive laundry list of recommendations. I was now Arnold Horshack rocking, and rolling in my seat awaiting my opportunity to add to the panel discussion. I knew that I had to give my considered opinion. I knew what was truly missing from the list. The reformer only came close to that missing element once as he made a somewhat snide remark about tenure. It was like a remark one would make out of the side of one’s mouth.
The missing element was EDUCATORS! We need to prioritize educating the educators about blended learning. Effective blended learning has not been around as long as most teachers have been around. It is reasonable to assume that being “bitten by the digital learning bug” will not be enough to transform a system. Teachers are taught to be classroom teachers. Online teaching uses much of the same pedagogy, but very different methodology. Paper worksheets are bad in a classroom, but digital worksheets are worse, thanks to cut and paste.
I never got to share that idea with the reformer. He opened the discussion to the audience, but he called out those who he wanted to answer by their first names. Neither the press pass on my badge, nor did my Arnold Horshack-like raising of my arm sway him from his mission. The commenters were all to be policy-makers, vendors, and business people who he chose. They would never have had that educator point of view that could have identified that educators were missing from the plan. I had become, not unlike many students who are not recognized in the classroom by their teacher. I was dejected, and I shut down. I did not go up to him and offer my opinion. He did not receive the key to success for his plan. I did not receive the chachkas his assistants handed out to people who engaged him in conversation. I went to the next session with Hall Davidson and had a great time engaging with new WEB2.0 learning tools.
I hope to attend this iNACOL Virtual School Symposium again, but I would hope that it evolves over the year to address the needs of the education system that needs to change. Less emphasis should be given to Vendors, CEO’s and For-Profit charter schools. Yes, they are part of the education system today, but their interests cannot come at the expense of the greater good of Public education for a majority of our citizens. If iNACOL is serious about having a greater impact in getting blended learning throughout the system, it needs to provide continuing education, support, and guidance to educators. This organization has the great potential and ability to combine policy and practice to make a difference. Once the educators are educated, can the students be far behind? I fear my bias has once again clouded my objectivity. I promise to keep working on that.