At Risk Students: Technology and Improving Student Performance

Summary: Can a new generation of online instruction free teachers to work more closely with at risk students?

Some tech types paradoxically champion technology as one key to unlock more resources for education in troubled economic times. Highly qualified individuals must be attracted to teaching, more teachers are needed together with more mentoring for at risk students, and computer technology must be purchased in order to provide less fortunate students the tools for the 21st century, among a host of potential outlays. How can technology do all of this, when consistently upgraded hardware and software are themselves expensive?

A counselor myself, I have been skeptical that machines will serve where relationships must be, at the core of learning, particularly for at risk kids. It would be providential if computer learning could eventually free teachers from basic instruction so they can focus more on substantial human contact with their students as a route to their greater academic success.

So I have read with interest recent articles about a vigorous generation of online programs not specifically for the high school world, but for the undergraduate and graduate technical level. Coursera, an online offering of computer related curricula, started by a couple of Stanford professors, has gotten some ink, and begun to stretch a web to other universities (“UW joins Stanford, others in offering free online classes,” by Katherine Long, Seattle Times, July 17, 2012). The content is for now free of charge, and both rigorous and closely aligned with courses the originators themselves teach at Stanford. As such, the course work will attract only the motivated and highly technical themselves, which it is doing at a vigorous pace, it appears.

Clearly, the beast has evolved to a higher form.

I remember in the sixties and into the seventies, as I began my training as a teacher, what was called programmed learning was alleged to soon render teachers obsolete, so successfully would these primitive computer programs teach the reading, writing, and arithmetic that so many teachers failed to do with so many kids. History will record that “programmed learning” lives on only in the vague memory of fossils such as I.

Later, much later, a host of poorly designed, confusing, and in general inadequate online credit retrieval programs appeared on the high school scene. I as a counselor have had a front row seat on these offerings because I have worked with so many students who have failed classes. Regularly, over 20% of students in a given graduation class would fail one or more courses in a given marking period, and so would need credit retrieval. The credit retrieval courses of this recent era were poorly aligned with district course content guidelines (“student learning objectives”, or SLO’s), or were simply not of the rigor of the course credits they replaced. They had the benefit of giving kids a chance to catch up to graduation requirements, but no one pretended they matched up to the course work originally failed.

These offerings however filled the breach in a transitional phase from traditional teacher taught summer school to credit retrieval coursework available throughout the school year and summer. The transit seemed a response to fiscal constraints (online may have proven less expensive), and to significant upticks in the number of courses failed.

Very recently, our school district has implemented a newer generation of online credit retrieval course work that more closely aligns with the in school SLO’s, promises improved rigor, and which presents learning material in a manner in which the older programs did not do. Progress.

The combination of the arrival of highly rigorous offerings on the college and graduate level such as Coursera, and the continuing evolution of high school credit retrieval begins to beg the question, will finally technology meet its earlier promise and take over some of the pure instruction that has been traditionally the function of a human being live teacher?

I remain a skeptic, but if certain forms of instruction, perhaps in math, the mechanics of grammar and spelling or even writing, world language vocabulary and grammar, instruction in the facts and reasoning behind certain subject matter, and so forth can significantly remove the teacher to the role of “guide on the side”, teachers may able to shift more substantially into guiding relationships with at risk students.

Clearly from my own experience and the testament of those promoting programs such as Coursera, a student has to be motivated independently in order to succeed in online learning. For example, we have found that we need to require students to work online in a classroom, with a teacher, at least part time, with the remainder of the work done independently at home. High school students who do online work solely at their own devices tend to fail at an unacceptable rate, not because it is too hard, but because they seem unable to structure their time to a requisite degree without some classroom support.

Thus more fully evolved programs targeted at certain instructional needs, together with restructured teacher roles designed to support computer learning, will not automatically reboot at risk kids, and others who lag behind, toward academic excellence. A critical link will have to be a return by teachers to an earlier, more traditional role as private ear to student crisis, a cheerleader in difficulty, an adult friend to the otherwise isolated, all in a kind of teacher/counselor role.

While the move to improvement in basic skills as monitored by standardized testing will not nor should not disappear in the foreseeable future, part of the success of those standards will rely on the success of teachers who develop relationships with kids whose skills lag because of their own personal circumstances, or because they simply have not bought into the race to the top.

Relationship is a key ingredient to at risk student success. May we hope that online curricula can paradoxically upgrade the human component in the classroom?

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