As soon as people discuss class sizes, the topic of online learning inevitably follows.

If we know that a given class consists mostly of lectures, and we have five teachers teaching the same class, why not replace them with an online forum? Class sizes could rise to hundreds of students per instructor, and school districts would potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Implement online learning in an entire district and the potential savings easily enter into the millions. Goodbye, education funding crisis.

But if we discuss online learning without considering whether it helps students achieve what we expect them to, then we’re missing the point. Online learning certainly has a place in a first-class educational system, but there is a wrong way and a right way to go about implementing it.

A recent Sacramento Bee article on the promise of online learning is a good example of the wrong way to think about this technological innovation.

As California receives more tax revenue, the [non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office] Tuesday questioned Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to send more money to public universities without demanding specific improvements.

If California does devote more money to higher education programs, LAO suggested that the state demand improvement in areas like graduation rates, reducing dropout rates and cutting costs. It pointed to online courses as a potential mechanism, an area that Brown and state lawmakers are already examining.

So here we see online learning being proposed primarily as a way to cut costs, with a brief suggestion that it will improve graduation rates and reduce dropout rates. Is there research to support the notion that putting potential dropouts on an online learning system will reduce dropout rates?  This story suggests that potential dropouts need individualized adult attention to help them develop study habits and adopt positive attitudes toward their education.

On the other hand, this release detailing a Harvard physics professor’s use of online learning is a great example of what online learning can look like. Professor Eric Mazur realized that his lectures weren’t achieving his goal — for his students to learn the material. Instead of thinking of online lectures as a threat to his relevance as a professor, he put his lectures online so his students could access them at home, and he used his time in class with his students to do more guided instruction. “Flipping the classroom,” a technique central to Mazur’s new teaching philosophy, is catching on.

The [Peer Instruction] technique relies on the power of the “flipped classroom.” Information transfer (i.e., a teacher transferring knowledge to students) takes place in advance, typically through online lectures. In short, students study beforerather than after class. As a result, the classroom becomes a place for active learning, questions, and discussion. Instructors spend their time addressing students’ difficulties rather than lecturing.

I have been able to start flipping my classroom. Instead of lecturing in class, I record my lectures, and my students access them at home. In class, we can spend more time on writing skills, documentary analysis and academic discussions. My students still get their lectures, which they say are useful, and I get to hone their skills. Is this a better learning experience for my kids? I would say so, and a lot of them would agree (they prefer my online lectures because they can pause them and use them to study for exams). Is it saving the school money? Not really.

For fans of flipping the classroom (including myself), we should consider that we might need to spend money on acquiring the appropriate tools for teachers to build up their online presence, on training them in ways to make efficient use of online tools and on redesigning their syllabi and lesson plans.

Teachers who currently rely on lectures are going to find that they have a lot more time to devote to actual instruction, and their professional development may need to focus on teaching strategies that will provide their students with a rich, skills-based learning experience. We’ll also need to make sure that all kids have access to the internet, either at school, at home or in public libraries.

Online learning may not solve our budgetary problems, but if done right, it can greatly improve our students’ learning outcomes. Isn’t that the goal of our educational system?

Oscar Ramos is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow him on Twitter @OscarRamosSD or email

Oscar Ramos is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow him on Twitter@OscarRamosSD or email

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