By Hyemin Han
Only one student is present for class, it seems, as more than 20 sky-blue chairs remain empty. The lone student, junior Meredith Yang, flips open a 19-inch Dell laptop in the Distance Learning Room in McNeil.
“Welcome to BlueJeans,” a woman’s voice echoes from the speakers, introducing the name of the platform through which all students in the Malone Schools Online Network (MSON) attend classes.
Yang, an international student, punches in a 9-digit meeting ID, and, in seconds, he’s in his Multivariable Calculus class. About 15 other students from around the country appear on the screen, ready to learn.
Yang, who started studying Calculus by his freshman year in China, has a passion for mathematics and hopes to pursue higher level courses in STEM— which are made available to him through MSON. He lights up as he talks about his classmates and the connection he finds with them through “math language.”
“I can talk with them about, ‘Ok, what should I do about it? Should I use linear algebra or should I use complex analysis to do this problem?’” he said.
Yang is just one of the many secondary school students who are joining the almost cultural shift towards digitized education, a national trend toward online learning that has been steadily increasing.
Online learning has boomed to the point where an entire college degree can be earned on the web. Whether it be asynchronous learning (learning that can be done completely independently, such as pre-recorded lectures or lesson plans) or synchronous learning (learning done in live time), more and more people across the globe have a ticket to education through the Internet.
However, teachers and critics across the country debate the intentions behind growing online learning trends, questioning whether institutions are sacrificing quality for quantity.
As a member of the Malone Family Foundation, which gives endowments to independent schools, MPH has the choice to be part of the Malone Schools Online Network (MSON). MPH is the only school in New York state in the network, which comprises 19 college preparatory schools across the country that are pooling student interest in advanced or uncommon classes that they would otherwise be unable to offer.
By combining real-time instruction across the BlueJeans Network as well as exercises outside of the virtual classroom, MSON students experience a close simulation of a real classroom. In total, MSON offers 28 courses ranging from Philosophy: Nature of Evil to the American Food System to Fundamentals of Nuclear Science.
Last year, 11 MPH students participated in seven different MSON classes. This year, though the number of students taking MSON classes has only increased by one, the total number of classes taken increased to 11. Most classes are STEM with the exception of higher-level language classes such as Chinese V and Arabic II.
Former Head of School Scott Wiggins spearheaded MPH’s enrollment in the program last year, a year after MSON’s initial launch in the 2013-14 school year. Being part of MSON, he said, would not only allow MPH to affiliate itself with some of the most outstanding independent schools in the country, but also enable it to take part in the new frontier in education.
“I was very keen for MPH to join MSON and made it a priority to do so,” Wiggins said.
Online learning, in many cases synonymous to distance learning, now refers to education that occurs on the Internet or primarily through technology. However, distance learning existed all the way back in 1892 at the University of Chicago. According to Forbes.com, the University used the U.S. Postal Service to have correspondence between its course members, and later went on to broadcast classes on the radio and then on television.
Today, online learning has evolved to encompass many forms, including full-time online classes, self-paced eLearning, digital reference-ware (digital eTextbooks, instructional audio, lecture videos, diagrams, maps), simulation-based learning and game-based learning. Online learning has grown tremendously over the years, but no year as much as this past one.
According to Ambient Insight, a research firm for global eLearning and mobile learning, the U.S. has the largest population of online PreK-12 students globally. Ambient reported that worldwide, investments in learning technology companies reached over $6.54 billion in 2015, a dramatic increase from the previous record set in 2014 of $2.42 billion.
MSON, however, is not yet common at MPH. Only 11 percent of juniors and seniors and 7 percent of the entire Upper School take classes.
Head of Upper School and former history teacher John Stegeman appreciates the role MSON plays in offering students opportunities otherwise unavailable. Although MSON becomes more cost-effective the more students join, since the school pays a flat program fee, Stegeman is not concerned about the number of students who participate. Instead, he hopes that it will allow students to experience their full academic potential during high school through a mix of traditional and online learning.
“[MSON] was designed to be a niche within the broader package of what we do; it was never intended to replace what we do,” Stegeman said.
Many teachers around the country, however, are finding that online learning is actually doing that: replacing what traditional teachers and traditional classrooms do. Why? According to a New York Times interview with Karen Aronowitz, former president of the teachers’ union in Miami, it’s because of money.
“It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” she said.
Stegeman holds a similar sentiment to many who are critical of online education’s efficacy in teaching students the way traditional learning does. By learning through online courses, students are not able to experience teacher-to-student relationships, collaboration, peer learning, problem-solving, friendship, interaction, and sense of community on the same level or in the same way they do in real classrooms, if at all.
Junior Trilok Reddy, who takes Advanced Economics, can attest to the pitfalls of learning through a computer screen.
“It can feel awkward at first, because at MPH, you know everyone,” he said. “And even if you don’t know them in person, you’ve still seen them around and you still know how they sound and all the teachers you’ve heard of, you know that they’re good teachers. But with MSON classes, it’s kind of like starting at a new school again.”
Logistically, MSON classes present problems as well, including a lack of one-on-one time with teachers and having to almost exclusively communicate with teachers through email.
“If you have more than, like, one question on the homework,” Reddy said, “it’s almost impossible to do it.”
Despite these drawbacks, higher-level institutions are not embracing online learning any less; William Cardamone, MPH’s Director of College Counseling, said that students should expect some college courses to be taught in an online format as well. Especially at for-profit colleges, online learning is employed to minimize costs and maximize enrollment. Because of the likelihood that students will learn online once they go to college, some states— including Arkansas, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, and Alabama— have already made a certain level of online learning a requirement for high-school graduation.
Though MPH will continue to offer MSON courses, Cardamone does not foresee an online learning requirement in MPH’s future. He believes MPH students will have no trouble interfacing with “virtual professors” and making sure they “advocate for themselves” in the chance they find themselves enrolled in online classes in college.
Instead, Cardamone hopes MPH students will use MSON to their advantage.
“We can allow our students who have these really high-level academic interests to continue to pursue it; they don’t have to wait until they get to college,” he said. “It speaks to our willingness to embrace innovation and change in education.”