Should science education go virtual? To a limited extent, I think it’s a good thing. But it’s a horrible idea to rush headlong into digitizing entire science courses or replacing hands-on activities with virtual lessons. Unfortunately, a potentially bad trend is developing as politicians and businesses push for more and more online classes and digital education resources. An approach that might work just fine for a virtual math or language arts course doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work in a science course. Do virtual education advocates understand that? The signs aren’t looking good.
There are definitely positives to be gained from incorporating interactive apps and computer programs into the science classroom. They are potentially valuable tools that can differentiate instruction and appeal to segments of learners who might not be engaged by textbooks and lectures. And teachers are really missing out if they aren’t tapping into the worldwide reach of the Internet for resources and ideas. It’s a pity when some schools have blanket restrictions on certain websites, such as one school I’ve worked in that blocked all access to Youtube. There are tons of interesting and free videos there demonstrating science concepts that would be difficult to show any other way.
But can students get quality science education with nothing but a computer? State Rep. Will Weatherford is advocating for an entirely online university (article behind a pay wall and so I can’t read it). Paul Cottle at Bridge to Tomorrow bluntly opines that science education can’t be properly done in such a setting. He points out that students aren’t grasping the deeper understanding that they really need. He also wrote a lengthy and detailed examination of how modern technology should and shouldn’t be used in the science classroom.
I completely agree with Paul. It seems that non-educators have this vision full of fancy computer programs that will magically impart knowledge with a few taps on the touch screen. Wiz! Bang! Learn! No classroom needed! That’s entirely unrealistic.
My son took a few math courses through the popular and highly-touted Florida Virtual School. He was flat out failing his remedial math courses in school, primarily due to constant classroom disruptions by way too many discipline problems. Frustrated by the school’s miserable responses to our concerns, we dropped his math courses and went online. The virtual classes were well structured and featured moderate interactive exercises and animations coupled with lots of standard practice problems. We had weekly phone conferences with the FVS teacher and I believe there were two or three assignments my son had to do live online with the teacher and other students all together.
If my son was turned loose on this by himself with no help from his mom or me, he would have failed. Period. If there was a concept that he just wasn’t grasping – and there were plenty of those – there would have been nothing he could do about it other than schedule an appointment with the FVS teacher. In the meantime, he would’ve just wasted time waiting to talk with her. However, his mom and I sat with him during every lesson and taught him the concepts using the FVS material as a guide. There were quite a few times when we, the adults, were stuck, too! Fortunately, I had a few college textbooks and a couple of non-FVS online resources to reference. The bottom line is that my son absolutely needed an instructor, not a mindless computer program that couldn’t answer his questions.
Online education is not for everyone. You absolutely must be self-motivated and resourceful. My bachelor of arts in science education (biology 6-12) was earned through Western Governors University, a fully accredited online school. I had spent about a year at a regular community college and then transferred to the online college when I realized that there was no way I could attain a bachelors due to scheduling conflicts with my full time job.
But even WGU wasn’t entirely online, which was a good thing from a science education perspective. My science courses came with big lab packs shipped to my house. For instance, my biochemistry lab contained a decent microscope, safety equipment, basic lab equipment such as test tubes and petri dishes, and the variety of chemicals/growing mediums and such that I needed to perform full experiments in my basement. I also had to use a few online lab programs, which I felt were OK but didn’t quite measure up to the real thing. The downside, though, was that I had no one to talk to and ask questions of while I was doing the work. There were a few times when things weren’t working the way they should and I didn’t know why until much later when I could finally schedule a call with an instructor. Overall, I do feel that I got a quality education through WGU, but I have to admit that I would have likely got better hands-on experiences in a physical school environment. I was incredibly grateful when I did my teacher internship at a local high school and was there during pig dissection time as well as lots of other lab exercises. The experiences were invaluable. But speaking of dissections …
Highlands County is going to all virtual dissections in biology courses next year. No hands-on dissections will be allowed at all. Apparently, the decision was made without input from the district’s science teachers who were not happy! I’ve written about virtual versus real dissections before and personally came down solidly on the side of real dissections.
I understand that this post is full of anecdotal evidence. If I have the time I may try to poke around and see if there is any solid information or studies concerning virtual science education. And I welcome any such tips that you folks can send my way. If I round up anything useful, I’ll write a follow up post.
However, I think that the stampede toward all-virtual education needs to be slowed down and controlled. Each academic subject needs to be evaluated separately. Can quality art education be done online? What does that look like? Is the course structured differently than a literature course? What about history and Spanish and geometry? And, of course, what about science and chemistry and physics? In other words, virtual education is not one size fits all. Politicians and other decision makers need to be educated on this before they cause more problems than they solve!