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Online Learning Reckons With the Digital Divide

Yes, ultimately. But not without a great deal of work and more than a little vision.

Online learning is intended to bridge educational divides caused by distance, high cost, and lack of time. High schools from New Zealand to Nebraska use interactive video, Web-based classes, and other distance-learning media to reach students who can’t get to school because of geographical barriers. Online learning is also making strides in adult and continuing education, home schooling, and corporate training. Headlines read, “Bring School to You” and “You Can Achieve a Degree Without Breaking Your Bank Account.”

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But what about the divide between those who are learning from educational systems already in place and those who are outside the system, such as high-school dropouts and young people in juvenile-detention centers? Can online learning help to address what is arguably an educator’s greatest challenge: motivating the unmotivated and inspiring the uninspired?

Yes, but it will take work and vision. If a student’s needs were not being addressed in a more traditional setting, merely transferring the schoolroom online won’t do it either. Educators have to work harder, to be more creative, and to spend more money to connect with individuals outside the system.

I think there is promise in role-playing games, or RPGs. In RPGs, each participant assumes the role of a character and interacts with the game’s imaginary worlds. Despite the negative press surrounding some RPG games such as Myst and Dungeons and Dragons, RPG games can encourage learners to work together as problem solvers in a safe and controlled environment; can promote literacy and numeracy; can encourage social interaction; and can convey information about art, history, and lateral thinking. These games can be set in any time period or setting and can get quite detailed, offering students much-needed exposure to different cultures and experiences. I’ve seen games devoted to teaching and testing skills as varied as bartending and conflict resolution.

Customization features now available in technology will also help educators provide these learners with the personalized feedback and attention they need but are not getting.

I am not suggesting that we should forego curricula, testing, or standards. What I am suggesting is we should look at online learning as part of the answer to reaching those separated both by geographic divides and by a lack of inspiration.

Mishka Brown (mbrown@aerolith.com) is cofounder and president of Aerolith Inc.

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