A new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recommends a broad set of guidelines for ensuring successful instructional outcomes in the newly evolving realm of online education.

The report, released Jan. 17, outlines a set of “quality standards” for distance education programs at the college level. It calls for, among other things, clear standards for content, technical support and counseling for students, protection of intellectual property rights, and proper training for faculty.

But AFT officials believe the standards can, and should, apply to online programs at the K-12 level as well.

“This resolution adopts these standards for higher education, but we are on record as saying that when the time comes for us to do a review of K-12 [programs], these same standards will apply,” said AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz.

“Distance Learning Guidelines for Good Practice” is based on a survey of AFT members who teach distance learning classes, as well as previous studies by the union and a resolution at AFT’s last convention. The report includes the following recommendations, among others:

  • Distance education students should be given advance information about course requirements, equipment needs, and techniques for succeeding in a distance learning environment, as well as technical training and support throughout the course.

  • Close personal interaction should be maintained among students and teachers.

  • Equivalent library materials and research opportunities should be made available to distance education students.

  • Assessment of student knowledge, skills, and performance should be as rigorous as in classroom-based courses.

  • Academic counseling and advising should be available to the same extent that it is for students in more traditional environments.

  • Faculty should shape, approve, and evaluate distance education classes. Faculty members need to be adequately compensated and provided with the necessary time, training, and technical support to develop and conduct online classes.

  • Full undergraduate degree programs (and, presumably, full elementary or secondary school programs) also should include classroom-based coursework, with exceptions made for students who are truly unable to come to classes, for whatever reason.

According to Horwitz, “Distance Education Guidelines for Good Practice” is the result of member cooperation and outside research at the AFT.

Four years ago, the group commissioned a research project on distance education from the Institute for Higher Education Policy at the request of AFT members who wanted to learn more about the subject.

“Essentially, we wanted to look at distance learning in a very open-minded way, and what we found was that there was a dearth of research available,” Horwitz said.

The study found that some classes lend themselves to distance education more easily than others, he said. The AFT resolved to provide some guidelines to help educators successfully implement online learning programs.

“Clearly, the growing popularity of distance education calls for a close look at its application and an emphasis on developing and maintaining high standards,” said AFT President Sandra Feldman.

“While online and distance learning are, in general, good options for taking a particular course or set of courses, this does not automatically mean that it is acceptable for an entire undergraduate degree program to have no in-class component,” she added.

And this goes for the K-12 level, too, Horwitz said.

“Higher education foreshadows what may come along in K-12. Our members still advocate some in-person education at the undergraduate level, and I think they would feel even more strongly about the necessity of that for K-12 [education],” he said.

“We believe the lower [in grade level] you go, the more you need real human interaction,” Horwitz said. “We [at the AFT] love distance learning, and we believe it’s here to stay, especially as an adjunct to other types of learning.”

Even so, the AFT tempers its praise for distance education with some real-life concerns about the benefits of educational programs offered entirely online. Large-scale, all-online K-12 institutions—such as the newly-announced K12 Online School, led by conservative William Bennett—may not be right for every student, officials said.

“Is it really good to take a chemistry class, like the one that Bennett plans to offer, with animated beakers and Bunsen burners?” asked Horwitz. “A class where the students never smell the sulfur, conduct hands-on experiments, or learn about the importance of safety conditions in a lab? It just seems unrealistic.”

Only certain types of learners will prove successful with internet-based learning, Horwitz said: “It’s good for self-motivated learners, but most students have a real need for a personal connection.”

Educators who run online programs at the K-12 level generally agreed with the AFT’s recommendations.

“Overall, these are things that we value at my institution,” said Kathi Baldwin, educational technologist for the SeeUonline virtual school in Palmer, Alaska. “We definitely value student-teacher relationships, but we know that online education is not for every student. It can be good for some students and horrible for others.”

But Baldwin took exception to the implication that online simulations can’t provide a comparable experience for some students.

“Simulation is not necessarily a bad thing for students,” she said. “We don’t send people into space without simulating the situations. And I’d say that in K-12 [education], simulations may often be the best thing for students. Do they really need to smell the sulfur, or burn down the chemistry lab, or buy and use expensive or dangerous chemicals while they are in high school? I’d put a large caution on saying any class has to do this or has to do that.

“To me, the real test of a good distance learning program is this: Is it as good, or better, than what I can take face to face?”

Links:

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

“Distance Education Guidelines for Good Practice”
http://www.aft.org/higher_ed/technology

Institute for Higher Education Policy
http://www.ihep.com

K12 Online School
http://www.k12.com