By: Amy Gentile, M.A. Higher Education, Assistant Director and Head Teacher at Christian Educators Academy
One of my favorite things about working in online education is feeling like I’m on the “cutting edge” of educational innovation. There are so many positive aspects of online education that make it well-suited toward students in 21st century contexts. I love working with creative educators to help improve the online educational experience for our students, and am excited to see how this field will grow in the years to come. There are many reasons why I think online education will only increase in the next few years, but two of the core issues in my mind surround the areas of flexibility and customization.
One of the greatest assets of online education is its incomparable flexibility—a benefit for both teachers and students. This is something I’ve also personally experienced from the perspective of a student. Earlier in my career, when I still worked in a traditional classroom setting, I decided to begin pursuing my Master’s degree. I wanted to learn more both personally and professionally, but I didn’t want to leave my full-time job in an unstable economy and rack up student loan debt. After researching several options, I chose an online Master’s program which allowed me the flexibility to continue working as a teacher while being able to use my “off time” to pursue my studies. Since I didn’t have a physical classroom to attend at a set time, I was able to schedule my schoolwork around my existing job easily and save valuable time because I didn’t have a commute. Without that flexibility it would have been much more difficult and time-consuming to earn my degree.
While most of our high school students don’t have a full-time job (though some do), many of our students at CEA are heavily involved in extracurricular activities—sports, theater, and the arts—sometimes at a highly competitive level. We also have several students who are young entrepreneurs and run their own small businesses. I am constantly impressed by the dedication these young people have to their passions and the time they put into their commitments! These are wonderful things for students to be participating in, and I love being able to offer them a quality, flexible educational option so that they can pursue their passions without neglecting their education. The great flexibility of online education—allowing students to work on their own time, at their own pace, and anywhere they have a reliable internet connection and a laptop—opens up so many opportunities for students who are heavily involved in personal pursuits as well as those who travel or live abroad. As internet technologies help create an even more globalized society and as students pursue more extracurricular activities, I expect to see an increase in students who choose to learn online for its flexibility and compatibility with a 21st century lifestyle.
In addition to the great flexibility an online learning environment provides in terms of when and where to do school, online education also lends itself wonderfully to customization. Having taught in a traditional school setting before coming to CEA, I’ve come to appreciate the way that online learning uniquely allows teachers to really meet each student where they are and tailor both their feedback and sometimes even the curriculum to a particular student’s needs.
In my previous school, it was sometimes difficult to differentiate things for students as much as I would have liked since we were very small and private. Each grade-level only had one class of students, and it wasn’t possible to hire enough teachers to have separate “advanced” and “core” level classes with such a small student body. Thus differentiation mostly involved differing levels of homework as opposed to actual differences in the curriculum. Though CEA is still a small private school, because we exist online and don’t have to worry about maintaining the attention of twenty-five kids—all at varying levels—simultaneously, we’re given the freedom to really “meet each student where they are.” It’s simple for us to identify a student who struggles in a subject and move them to a curricular level that offers more support. Likewise, it’s easy to move a student who needs a greater challenge to a higher level, or to provide them with a challenging twist on an assignment, depending on that student’s particular strengths in weaknesses. Additionally, we have the ability to offer unique electives or to offer curricular alternatives much more easily than would be possible in a traditional school setting. This allows us the benefit of keeping our school small while still providing the curricular options and choices available at a larger school.
Online education also really puts the emphasis on the student as an individual learner. Students control the pacing of the lesson and can skip more quickly through material they understand, or spend more time on a lesson that’s difficult for them. In a traditional classroom setting, I often encountered students who were too shy to ask a question in class, or who worried about “slowing the class down.” Online education reduces these worries for students, and also encourages them to get to know their teacher because they are in constant communication. It’s wonderful to see students opening up and asking questions that they might not have asked in a traditional classroom setting. Additionally, no student gets “lost” in the classroom or has to worry about being too shy to participate in a group, since each student receives one-on-one attention from the teacher for all questions and assignments. This also allows the teachers the time to really get to know their students well—as both people and as learners—something that we care very much about at CEA.
Certainly, there are strengths and weaknesses to both the traditional classroom model and online models of education. At CEA, we constantly seek to evaluate these things, and to come up with creative ways to improve the online educational experience for our students. It’s also exciting to see all the wonderful opportunities that online educational naturally opens up for teachers that allow us to better reach students and to support them in their growth as learners and as citizens of the 21st century. I look forward to watching how this field grows and changes in the coming decade, and I fervently believe that the flexibility and customization that online education provides will be a draw for students as well as their teachers in the years to come.