The Kairos Classroom Spotlight

English Online:

Does Innovation Sacrifice Learning?

"New and Improved" Really Means Something
Concerns of Pedagogy and Design
Does Innovation Sacrifice Learning?

by David Schelle
Hotchkiss High School

If you were one of my online composition students this semester, chances are that you're a high school senior who is trying to graduate early. You're college-bound in the spring, and you're willing to try new things. By the way, you also flunked my class.


I teach freshman composition through a local four-year college to college-bound high school seniors. My primary motivation in developing an online version of the class is to be able to reach other high school seniors on the west slope of Colorado, so they, too, can enter college having completed freshman composition.

My online composition class, Honors English Online, is designed to be a stand-alone internet-based writing class. I designed the online class with the idealistic belief that I could match or exceed the quality of instruction I provided to my traditional, classroom students. While I don't deny this is possible, I don't believe I reached that goal this semester.

All of my students this semester have been from different high schools in the Delta County School District. Out of four students (the online class was minimally advertised to approximately 70 qualified students in the school district), one ended the semester incommunicado with an F; one struggled to receive a 65%; one opted to finish the semester in the classroom and one successfully completed the class with a 88%. These grades primarily reflect essay scores and weekly assignments.


  • Student #1 failed the course. She stopped reading and responding to her email, and the only way to communicate with her was through the school counselor or home, since her high school is thirty miles away. Even though no one at the school was surprised of her failure, I wonder how I could have motivated her to stick with it. It was impossible to stop her in the hall; I couldn't visit with her after school, and I didn't meet her parents at parent-teacher conferences. These are all methods I use to get my traditional students back on track, but, for the most part, these strategies are unavailable for online students. This communication gap represents a significant change in the relationship between instructor and student. For the student who reacts positively to interpersonal contact, he or she may be at risk of dropping out of an online course.

  • Student #2 completed just enough assignments and rewrote just enough essays to pass. While this sounds like an underachievement, I feel as if I had a great success with student #2. She was unable to attend the beginning of the semester's face-to-face meeting, where I met with the students who would be taking the online class. (The purpose of this meeting is to allow instructor and students to meet in person, and it allows both to put a face to email correspondence. I found it helpful to meet my students, since we were both embarking on a new cyber-journey, and we were both agreeing to an informal contract of meeting the course's objectives.) Since student #2 did not attend this meeting, we spent a month attempting to find a mutually convenient time to meet. In this time, I did not receive one assignment from her. Only after we met face-to-face, did she start writing essays and completing assignments. It's my opinion that a student's shyness or hesitation can be minimized through the initial face-to-face meeting.

  • Student #3 took the course because it allowed her to take an extra credit in order to graduate early. She was such a computer novice that she frequently got help from other students and me in the traditional class. Because she decided not to graduate early, she opted to finish the course in the classroom. Much of her progress was not only slowed by a steep learning curve concerning navigation of the internet, but she used an IBM clone, and all the course's requirements and her computer experiences were based on Macintosh systems. This merely added another difficulty to her progress.

  • Student #4 was able perform all of the course's technological requirements without a problem. This definitely allowed him to focus on his writing. In a recent chat session, I asked about the reasons for his success, and he emphasized the importance of his computer skills. I tended to discount the importance of the relationship between computer skills and online course success, since I view computer skills as merely a tool to learning. However, I can't deny the evidence of student #4's success.


    Why such a poor showing? I believe some of the fault lies with my willingness to accept any student, regardless of computer and internet experience. While it may not require many computer skills to log on, read and write email and consult the course online, to perform those skills regularly and to learn from them requires an ease and familiarity that only an experienced computer user has.

    Further, most of the course's requirements employ some facet of the internet. For instance, students are required to keep an electronic writing portfolio, built with HTML; students are required to join a composition LISTSERV, and are expected to follow discussion threads; students are also asked to participate in scheduled chat sessions. While it's reasonable to assume that a self-motivated student will learn how to perform these functions, and I do include specific instructions for each task on my class's site, my experience reveals that only the most computer-proficient student has the confidence or gumption to do it. Perhaps when a student feels comfortable navigating sites, and is not worried about "getting lost," that student has more time and freedom to devote to learning the tasks at hand.

    Another reason for poor student performance has to be student motivation. After discussing two of the students' lack of work with their respective high school counselors, I found that the students' reasons for taking the online course were not because they were excited about the flexibility and self-pacing that's possible with distance education. No, student #1 took the course because she wanted to get out of a particular teacher's required class; student #2 took the course because she had an opening in her schedule, and another English credit would allow her to graduate early. These are actually legitimate and valid reasons for participating in distance education; however, they're not necessarily motivations that lead to successful learning and high grades.

    Most students believed that an online course would provide an easier English credit than a traditional class. It's encouraging to think that students' initial reaction to online education is not one of intimidation. However, by underestimating the level of difficulty of self-directed learning, many students were at a disadvantage from the start. By the time their first essay had been graded and returned, their shock was intensified. This issue may be related to the students' immaturity or inexperience.

    The Future

  • The initial face-to-face meeting will be required for every student at the beginning of the semester. This may be difficult as I begin to teach more students from out of the district, but the oxymoron "high tech, high touch" is true. In other words, the human element of teaching becomes more significant as technology continues to separate the teacher from the students. The face-to-face meeting also allows the instructor to get a brief glimpse into the participating students' personalities.

  • I plan to screen qualified applicants by a questionnaire that directs potential students to examine their motivations for choosing an online class. Here is an online example of such a questionnaire. I will still allow students who are relatively new to the internet to take my class, because I believe the advantage of using the internet as a learning and writing tool far outweighs the disadvantage of learning new software and key commands. This may sound contradictory to my earlier statements regarding the importance of having experienced computer-users as online students, but I believe that it is not the computer experience that makes these students successful. Rather, a student's computer knowledge is merely an indicator of that student's desire to learn new skills. It is this desire that I believe may help students be successful at an online course.

  • I will hand out hard copies of the class site and weekly assignments at the beginning of the semester in an attempt to make students aware of the breadth of the class and to discredit the belief that an online course is easy.

  • Although I initially believed in the flexibility of internet-based education, the specific challenges of a writing class require that all students begin the class at the same time. This will facilitate peer editing of essays, and it will alleviate some of the organizational problems of keeping track of individual student's progress.

  • I will not take late work. Each student will know when I check my email; each student will know when the last possible moment they may send work. It's too easy for high school students to fall behind when there isn't a teacher present on a daily basis. A no-tolerance policy for late work will add structure to the weekly work. As always, I will allow flexibility at the beginning of the semester to take into account initial hardware and software problems.

  • If it's necessary and possible, I will limit my number of online students to 10-15 students. An online class involves just as much time, if not more than a traditional class. My online class was a challenge to organize since I had to keep track of each part of each assignment that a student sent me; their grade on each part of each assignment; a record of what I sent to whom, as well as cumulative grades. The time spent organizing email, essays and homework is in addition to reading and grading essays.

  • It is helpful for each student to have access to a dedicated computer with internet access at a specific time of the school day. While this is not a requirement, it is a scheduling tool that helps the student organize time.

  • Another tool that may help a student's performance is to ask them to have an adult mentor at their school, perhaps an English teacher who can help with assignments. It may be perceived as unfair for the online instructor to enlist another teacher's help for the class, but I believe a mentor can act as part of the intellectual support system, and add a human element to the course.


    Based on this admittedly small sample size, I feel that the audience for online courses at the high school level seems to have shrunk. I no longer believe that net courses can successfully serve the typical suspended or expelled student. (Although the home-schooled student remains an excellent candidate for an online course.) Similarly, the ambitious student who wants to receive 'easy' credits over the summer or during the school year may find that self-directed learning is much more difficult than the usual "sit and git" method of learning.

    I still firmly believe in the power of net-courses to meet the needs of high school students, particularly those who have a desire to challenge themselves, to pace their own learning, and to be not held back by the traditional age-grade paradigm. The Colorado Department of Education defines these students as "Gifted and Talented," or children "whose abilities, talents, and potential for accomplishment are so exceptional or developmentally advanced that they require special provisions to meet their educational needs" ( State Gifted and Talented Education Guidelines).

    I don't want to believe that only the highly self-motivated high school students--the gifted and talented--can be successful at online education. While there is no electronic substitute for the hand on the shoulder, the stern gaze or the sound of the teacher's laugh, I wonder if this is what most young adults need to remain focused on academics.

    email david schelle