As an online educator who spends most of my day teaching students all over the world, I have often been asked why students still need traditional schools. After all, if students can take courses online from wherever they are, and for often a fraction of the price, those steep school tuitions do not seem all that necessary. On the surface, it is certainly true, that students can take almost any academic course from the comfort of a computer screen. The school experience though is more than just the academic courses. There are certain parts of the educational experience that cannot be replaced with technology.
Many people with whom I have shared this opinion are surprised to hear me say this. As the owner of a company that creates online courses, I am a person who could benefit greatly from students taking all of their courses online. As a veteran teacher however, I know that there are certain aspects of the school day that cannot be done on a computer. For school is more than class periods and tests. The school experience also includes those outside of class learning moments and of course the social interactions, that can shape a person’s entire future.
Looking back to our own high school years, many of us can fondly remember those lunch time and after school schmoozes with our favorite teachers. I remember one lunch period during my senior year, when a casual chat with one of my teachers turned into one of the most meaningful conversations of my entire life. This conversation was part of the reason I became a teacher, and this lunch period forged a student teacher relationship that is still strong today, over twenty-five years later. While most of us have hundreds of Facebook friends, how many of these contacts would we consider to really be true friends? Perhaps, it could be argued that the definition of friendship has changed with the digital age, but looking back at personal experiences, those school based friendships are still important today.
Recently, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a 25-year-old man, who spent all of his academic years as a home schooled student. Now, I am not going to say that home schooling is bad, because if done correctly, the social aspects described here can be achieved. For this young man however, home schooling meant growing up in an extremely isolated environment with few friends and almost no true mentors or examples to look up to. Today, this 25-year-old man is a pleasant person who probably has a lot to offer to the world. The problem is that he was never taught the skills that most students learn outside of the classroom but in the school setting. This person’s social skills and interactions with strangers were awkward to say the least. If I had not known that he grew up in a non-school environment and in more isolated surroundings, I would have thought that there may have been more serious issues. I started to think about what this person could have accomplished with just a bit more guidance and structure in his life. When this person heard about my online courses, he remarked that he could have spent his entire day in front of a computer screen and would have learned everything he needed. As we all know, this is simply not the case, as school is about more than math and science. This smart and intelligent young man is now struggling to make it through life without the skills and experiences that most of us would consider to be basic.
So, while on one hand, online classes can be a huge resource to both school based students as well as to home learners, they should not be viewed as a potential replacement to traditional academic institutions. Online learning can be a great supplement to traditional educational programs in order to create more course options and to meet the needs of the individual students. A computer screen however should not be viewed as a replacement for schools. There is just too much that happens outside of the classroom, that even with the best online programs, cannot be replicated on a computer screen.