Beware of Taking Flexibility a Step Too Far

At its best, online learning can catalyze new heights of flexibility—in path, pace, place, space, and teacher-student interactions—amidst an education landscape that has long looked more like an industrial production line. In blended and online environments, students can move at their own pace, and when provided access to real-time data, teachers can intervene more nimbly when individual students get stuck. In turn, schools can start to move away from seat time and fixed-date assessments, hallmarks of the antiquated factory-model school. Moreover, online coursework can start to facilitate anywhere, anytime learning, which doubles down on the promise that learning need not be confined to the four walls of the classroom.

This is all well and good. On the flip side, however, is it possible that schools will take this too far and exploit the flexibility that online learning affords them? A recent trend in virtual “work-from-home” days suggests they just might. Education Week chronicled the startling experiment of student work-from-home days popping up on district calendars in states such as Alabama, Minnesota, and New Jersey. From these schools’ perspectives, virtual work-from-home school days can promise both to reduce operations costs and introduce students to the technology-centric and flexible work culture they will one day enter. But this particular manifestation of flexibility risks ignoring some of the most critical functions that a school should perform for its families and the community.

For much of the past century, and perhaps today more than ever, schools played a key custodial role that allowed parents to earn a livelihood while their children have a safe space to spend the day with caring adults and to socialize with friends. Indeed, although online learning initially sparked a rise in homeschooling, homeschooling rates haven’t nearly kept up with the rapid spread of online learning. In other words, most families have not embraced full-time online virtual learning as an answer to their particular circumstances or values. The majority of parents and children alike appear to want a place where children can go to learn, play with friends, and receive reliable care.

That’s not to say that some students and families aren’t seeking a mix of home-and school-based learning. Indeed, one blended-learning model, the Enriched Virtual model, has emerged from the full-time virtual space, as homeschooling families are demanding at least some brick-and-mortar component to their children’s learning experience.

This model, however, relies on families being able to provide the lion’s share of adult supervision themselves. Providing or arranging care, even just one day per week, however, isn’t ideal or even financially feasible for many working families.

When we envision the future of education, we believe that brick-and-mortar buildings undeniably remain a cornerstone of schools. As Michael Horn and I have argued, the school of the future may not serve identical functions as it does today. Instead, school may start to look more like a community hub, where children can come and go depending on their learning needs, their families’ needs, and the mix of in-school and out-of-school learning experiences they are engaged in at a given time. But even if learning starts to happen beyond that locale, this brick-and-mortar hub stands to serve new and powerful roles. Particularly with online learning giving way to a suite of flexible learning experiences, schools may indeed move beyond their traditional role as sole academic provider, offering a breadth of non-academic resources such as mentoring, health services, and community-building activities–all of which can support healthy development and serve as powerful antidotes to chronic achievement gaps.

In other words, we can leverage online learning’s inherent flexibility to cultivate school services—not cut them. Flexibility in learning modalities should not mean sacrificing communal space for learning. Indeed, many schools that embrace technology to drive personalized learning have actually moved in the opposite direction: extending the school day to build in time for students to do more project- and team-based learning, meet one-on-one with teachers and advisors, and even just access on-site wireless Internet.

The future of education promises a more flexible school model where students can come and go—but crucially, they should always have a place to go.

— Julia Freeland Fisher

This first appeared on the blog of the Christensen Institute.

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