An Education in History Education
Learning History Online?
I’ve completed my first full semester of teaching high school social studies in a fully online environment (insert snarky comment about working in pajamas and waking up late), and I’ve been wrestling with more than a few issues about the efficacy of this approach. I do not believe that I would lump myself with the likes of ed tech curmudgeon (and recently deceased) David Noble, but I do believe that uncritical acceptance of secondary level distance learning as it currently exists may not foster the habits and skills needed by 21st century global citizens.
Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is “the largest state-led virtual school program in the US.” I currently work for a franchise of FLVS, a district-level organization (not technically a “school” on paper even though we insist on labeling ourselves as such) that provides classes to local students using FLVS’s course content. Essentially, our organization buys the curriculum from FLVS in much the same way bricks-and-mortar schools (B&Ms) buys textbooks. I teach the Advanced Placement social studies classes, notably AP US History and AP US Government. My first encounter with FLVS students taking AP classes occurred when two online students joined my 28 in-class students for the administration of the APUSH exam at the end of the 2009-10 school year. One of the two online students said that she did not get past World War I in the curriculum, and her score (along with that of the other online student) reflected this lack of coverage. Both online students scored a 1, while 53.6% of my 28 in-class students passed the exam (scored a 3, 4, or 5) that year. (It should be noted that both of the aforementioned online students were otherwise academically successful.)
As I hinted at above, I taught APUSH in a B&M for three years with a reasonable amount of success: annual pass rates at or above the national average after my first year of teaching the class and an overall (three-year) pass rate well above the national average. As I began perusing the FLVS curriculum for APUSH at the beginning of this school year, a number of questions concerning the effectiveness of the curriculum swirled through my head:
1) Why was the textbook so difficult to download? After calling three reps and an equal number of tech support personnel, I finally landed in the right spot. (The FLVS site initially directed me to the incorrect page for the online textbook.) I had to go through more than a reasonable amount of steps to even find the correct textbook, and once I did locate the text, the default setting wanted me to view the book within the website itself (thus eliminating the possibility that I may want to view these documents offline). Once I finally figured out how to download the text (in PDF), I realized that doing so was a huge chore because each chapter had to be downloaded separately. After attempting to guide one student through this process, I decided that I would rather e-mail each of my students all the PDFed chapters than to risk any one of them falling back on a technical excuse for not having a textbook (an excuse to which I would have been sympathetic). The APUSH text is, for most students, the first time they are challenged by a college-level set of readings, and it’s import within the class is (almost) without question. But for my online students their initial access to it was convoluted, at best.
2) Why were unit/chapter identification terms not required assignments? For better or for worse, one of the staples of APUSH learning has been the incessant memorization of terms, people, and events. Based on my observations, most successful APUSH teachers use some form of the “notecard assignment” to prod students into remembering these terms. Even though College Board is revamping the curriculum away from this burdensome errata, this information is still necessary to pass the exam this year (and probably the next). Also, once the switch to a broad-based, thematic approach is finalized, I imagine students will still need to be able to marshal an impressive amount of evidence to succeed on the AP exam. I was absolutely shocked to find that FLVS did not require students to submit some type of assessment resembling the “notecard assignment.” When I asked the FLVS administrator for the Advanced Placement program why this was the case, he responded by saying that this was not an example of “authentic learning” and therefore did not merit a place within the curriculum. While I certainly understand and sympathize with this argument (students can just look up the “Who? What? Where? When? Why? & How?” on Wikipedia), this ignores the fact that students need to encounter the building blocks of historical investigation in multiple forums and in ways that allow them to review this information later. The “notecard assignment” accomplishes these tasks and may also be modified by online instructors to address the concerns of inauthenticity.
3) What is the pass rate for FLVS’s AP US History classes? In mid-semester, I attended the annual FLVS conference, and many of my suspicions concerning the ineffectiveness of the FLVS APUSH curriculum were confirmed. As I tweeted on September 17, 2010, “APUSH pass %: national – 53.2%; Florida – 40.5%; #flvs – 32.5%. Numbers speak for themselves & #flvs knows it. Doing what to fix? #flvsconf” There are only three possible inputs responsible for these appalling results (and this is true of any AP class): the teacher, the students, and the curriculum. First, I can assure you that FLVS’s APUSH teachers (and I would wager most all of their AP teachers) are highly motivated and well trained. Because online teaching positions are highly coveted, FLVS tends not to hire inexperienced AP teachers. FLVS financially rewards high performing/effective teachers, thus ensuring that even middling teachers are, at minimum, emulating the best practices of better teachers. Second, because the pass rate numbers for both FLVS and the state cover a geographically broad expanse of students, the difference in group composition may be negligible. I’m willing to accept, for example, that International Baccalaureate (IB) students may be less prone to take APUSH online (due to their extremely tight scheduling during all four years of high school), but I do not think that, at the state level, that this or any other conjured difference in student composition would account for an eight percentage point differential between the two groups. The curriculum is the common denominator in FLVS’s failure to achieve a respectable pass rate for its APUSH students.
The above critique of secondary level distance learning focuses solely on FLVS’s AP US History curriculum, and this approach certainly has its limits. The availability of an online, free, public education benefits a wide variety of student constituencies (homebound students and homeschooled students, just to name a few), and this type of accessibility should be encouraged. Nevertheless, the opportunity costs associated with distance education should identified and analyzed, not be overlooked. One study, contrary to a recent U.S. Department of Education analysis, suggests that a lack of face-to-face contact may negatively impact student performance.
Is it possible that some types of learning are better facilitated in a face-to-face environment? This is a matter of pedagogical research, and the answer(s) to this question may prove increibly useful in creating powerful and effective curriculua for a variety of disciplines. But, more to the point, can history be taught/learned effectively in an exclusively online environment? Surely, the factoids, dates, and personages of the historical record can be conveyed through the ones and zeros of digital representation as easily as the chalk and blackboards of yesteryear. But, is the online ecosystem enough to foster the highest levels of engagement, self-reflection, and criticism that historical thinking tends to spawn? Or is the discussion of analog versus digital simply missing the point all together? Is there another, better way to create historical understanding amongst our charges?
I would like to suggest that an immersive online educational environment does not provide the full measure of sustenance required for historical teaching, learning, and thinking at the secondary level. It is highly likely that I am idealizing historical knowledge production to such an extent that no digital curriculum would meet my standards. Even so, holding the rising tide of online learning to high levels of accountability may be worth the trouble in the long run…and it may help us to better understand the nature of our beliefs about history and education.