The Growth of Online Education by Robert Henderson Jr. '76, Head of School
The president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, was summarily dismissed and shortly thereafter summarily reinstated late last spring, by that university’s board. The driving issue behind that seesaw governance crisis was online education and whether the administration was moving quickly enough to expand the university’s Internet presence. My purpose here, however, is not to explore the specifics of that situation; rather, I want to highlight the escalating interest and debate about the future of online education that were underscored by the Virginia dispute. Here at Nobles we have taken a significant step in regard to online options, joining Global Online Academy (GOA) and making that program available for full credit to Nobles students. There are sound reasons why GOA appealed to us as an opportunity and experiment, even though we continue at Nobles to harbor significant skepticism about online teaching.
In the second line of the Nobles mission we assert, “Through mentoring relationships, we motivate students to achieve their highest potential.” The student-teacher relationship is at the heart of our educational philosophy. The critical “value-added” of the Nobles experience is that connection. In the case of my own course, AP European History, I am well aware that the specific content can be delivered quite clearly and efficiently by a number of means, with a textbook or through a wide variety of resources available on the internet. My job in the classroom, however, is to make the emotional and intellectual connection with my students that will push their learning much further than is possible with a static resource. In an op-ed in the New York Times on July 19, educator Mark Edmundson argued, “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching…is a matter of dialogue…Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with … But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” This cannot be reproduced by the online experience, and it is this commitment to the individual student that makes a Nobles education special and powerful.
Yet it is starkly true that online education is inexpensive and efficient. It does not require athletic centers or language labs, and one teacher can theoretically reach an unlimited number of students, virtually annihilating the greatest expense in traditional education, which is labor. If you have never done so, go to the website for Kahn Academy (www.kahnacademy.org) and explore what is available through that incredible resource at no cost. The options for online education are proliferating, and just about every university in the country is expanding their online offerings, while also advancing their technologies to deliver this material in engaging, varied ways. It is a threat to traditional schools at both the secondary and collegiate levels, with their ponderous overheads and escalating cost structures.
So the challenge for Nobles was finding a reasonable way to enter and explore this burgeoning field without undermining what we truly believe is essential to excellence in teaching and learning. The opportunity was provided by a collaborative enterprise among a number of outstanding independent day schools from within the United States and around the world: GOA (www.globalonlineacademy.org). This coalition of like-minded schools sought to create an online option that mirrors as closely as possible the relational model of classroom teaching. It also permits Nobles to expand our course catalog, making available a wide variety of subjects beyond the scope of our curriculum. Classes are small, and teachers provide individual attention to students on a regular basis. Moreover, students are required to engage in collaborative projects with students from a remarkable variety of backgrounds. We are required as well to offer at least one course and provide one teacher per semester, meaning that Nobles teachers will be trained in and develop sophistication with this media (this year it will be Ayako Anderson offering an introductory Japanese language and culture class). Nobles has the opportunity to learn and experiment with online education, in manner consistent with our own mission, developing our own perspective and relationship with this teaching method as the field grows. Several students took a GOA course during the second semester of last year, all of them providing favorable course evaluations, and several more will be enrolled in the year ahead.
There is no question that Nobles will remain deeply committed to what we consider to be the best practices in secondary education. The experience of being a part of a community like this is not possible online, nor are the depth and quality of relationships that develop in our classrooms, and on our playing fields, stages, trips and service commitments. In my view, the art of teaching developed some essential guiding principles in the time of Socrates that still guide the profession and which are, at best, very difficult to replicate outside of a dynamic environment created by a skilled teacher working in person with capable and engaged students. Yet online education is here to stay, and it is now incumbent upon this school to develop a relationship with it, and best practices to supplement our program. It is likely that all of our students in the future will experience some form of online education, either here, or in colleges and universities, or in some manner of professional training, or just as a matter of personal exploration and growth. You can read more about the specifics of our involvement in GOA, as well as the way in which we will credit courses for high school students, in the Nobles Guide and on the Nobles website (www.nobles.edu/GlobalOnlineAcademy).