How will we learn?

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Every year, millions of students take online classes.

And every year, that number grows.

As of last year, the number had reached 30 percent of all high school students, up from ten percent just five years before.

But even as online enrollment reached an all-time high across the nation last year, the numbers at 10600 Preston Road were next to nothing.

As the administration prepares to discontinue the course offerings from Global Online Academy (GOA) next year, they are faced with a glaring fact: only five students out of almost 400 enrolled in upper school have taken a GOA course in the past two years.

Now, while online high schools and course offerings take off across the country, there is one burning question to ask.

What went wrong with GOA?

It is a question followed by many others.

In the digital age of inevitable online interaction, what is the best way to learn?

Can the value of face-to-face interactions be replicated through a screen?

Does online education signal the end of brick and mortar schools, or can they coexist?           

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Although the opportunity to offer online classes through GOA seemed promising, hardly any students enrolled in the classes — less than two percent.

According to Dean of the Campus and Provost Scott Gonzalez, much of this has to do with the student body’s reluctance to stray away from AP courses.

“Students here often want to go for what I would call a ‘known course,’” Gonzalez said, “or something that will bolster their résumé to get them into a specific college or university. And more often than not, that particular course has “AP” in front of it.”

Likewise, Director of Academic Information Systems Paul Mlakar believes students were not informed or incentivized enough to truly consider online courses as an option in comparison to the typical AP course load. The school didn’t sell it. And the students didn’t buy it.

“We have to look at it as if this is just a different way of learning,” he said. “This is a different opportunity, but it's not any less valuable than what we're doing at St. Mark's. It has to be looked at as equal, not subordinate; I think we have to give credit to it. We have to say, ‘If you're going to do a course on this, it has to replace something else,’ and maybe more than just an elective course.”

The skills required for learning online are very different from learning in a classroom. In a school community that “prides itself on procrastination,” as Mlakar puts it, he believes online classes are often unsuitable for students, especially those who have trouble remaining constantly organized and up-to-date with their work.

“If you're in my class, I'm prodding you,” Mlakar said. “You better do your homework, or if you're behind you better get caught up, or if you have a task coming up you better get started. You may not have that prodding from a GOA teacher. Deadline hits, and if you've missed the deadline, you may not have the flexibility you do with a face to face teacher.”

The personal responsibility involved with an online class, however, can also translate into a growth in self-reliance and individual pursuits, which GOA Executive Director Michael Nachbar emphasizes.

“GOA classes emphasize interaction, perspective sharing and taking and a personal approach to teaching and learning,” Nachbar said. “Each of our classes is taught by an educator from one of our member schools who is nominated as a teacher leader from her/his respective school. There are a lot of programs today that emphasize personalized learning, which in many cases means students learning on their own.”

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For others, the benefits of an online class system are more apparent, as is the case for Lucas Porter. After leaving St. Mark’s after the 2012-2013 school year — his freshman year — to attend Stanford Online High School (SOHS), Porter opened up his possibilities as an international equestrian show jumper.

“I started taking classes from Stanford Online High School,” Porter said, “because I was starting to ride competitively a lot more and travel a lot more, so going to St. Mark’s was getting harder and harder because I was missing more and more school. So in order to still get a good education, my parents looked into homeschooling and online school, and they came across this program.”

Stanford Online High School is different from most other online schools in that there are scheduled classes every day, while many online schools are self-paced.

As he travelled around the world for show jumping in horseback-riding competitions, Porter discovered online classes allowed him to continue school as normal no matter where he was, making it incredibly more efficient than a brick-and-mortar school like the one he attended for so long.

“For example, I was in three consecutive shows, three different shows,” Porter said, “that lasted three weeks in Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. and Lexington, KY. And I could attend those three weeks of school from those three different hotel rooms. And I didn't get behind at all because I could just do the work after the competition, attend school during the day, and compete in competitions at night.”

However, online education suffers from key issues as well. One of the greatest issues with Stanford Online High School and other schools of its kind is a lack of social interaction. While SOHS promotes face-to-face interaction through clubs and summer sessions, Porter still feels the school falters in this area.

“I find that St. Mark’s kind of brings you out of your shell,” Porter said. “It encourages you to interact with other kids, interact with teachers, and I find that it makes you feel like a part of a community. Whereas at SOHS, given that it is an online school, it is obviously super difficult to maintain that feeling of a community.”

Headmaster David Dini expresses similar concerns with the online setting, and feels the lack of face to face interaction is one of the key reasons brick-and-mortar schools won’t be going away.

“You can only replace some of the information transfer,” Dini said. “You can’t replace the human interaction online. You can create certain elements of it through Skype, but obviously the human dimension and the relationships we believe are fundamental to the experience here will always be critical.”

But while the online scene may not make brick and mortar schools obsolete, faculty and students alike feel certain aspects of traditional learning will change in the coming years.

“Online education is not a fad that is going away,” Nachbar said. “Schools need to find effective ways to blend online and on-campus learning so that students are skilled learners in both domains.”

Having experienced both the online and physical setting, Porter echoes Nachbar’s sentiments and is confident in the future of a cooperation between the two options.

“Although a lot of schools are being created online, “ Porter said, “I think that the idea of a brick and mortar is not flawed at all. If anything, this combination of brick and mortar and online will be dominant, but I definitely don't think brick and mortar schools will be nonexistent.”

Claire Goldsmith, SOHS director of admission and external relations, also emphasizes the potential for harmony between physical and online schools and feels students should take advantage of the opportunity to combine face-to-face classes with online ones.

“There are many ways online schools can cooperate with brick and mortar schools,” Goldsmith said. “Sometimes, brick and mortar schools aren’t able to offer a particular subject, or level of a subject, and an online provider can meet that need so that the school does not have to hire an additional teacher.”

Likewise, Gonzales urges faculty to consider the goal of synthesis between the online and learning environment, as he feels that a lack of faculty enthusiasm was one of the contributing factors to GOA’s short tenure on campus.

“I think that there are some of my colleagues who fear that their employment is in jeopardy,” Gonzales said. “That could not be further from the truth. We are not going to do away with brick and mortar schools, at least in the philosophical and missional aspect of this institution.”

Nachbar also believes that campus based schools are not broken, but they are not complete either.

“It’s incumbent upon leading independent schools,” Nachbar said, “to find ways to offer their students opportunities to develop the skills needed to be modern learners, and to expect their faculty to teach in modern ways.”

But whatever the reasons for the GOA’s disappointing results in the past two years, Mlakar, and all the faculty, rest assured that the online scene will make a return.

“I think it was an exciting opportunity for kids that maybe we just didn't sell hard enough as an opportunity for them,” Mlakar said. “ I think it's an ongoing, ‘to be continued’ discussion, and I'm glad that we're not moving away from it entirely and never coming back to it. We're taking a year off, a year hiatus, and when it’s over we'll see where we go from there.”