To go online or not to go online.

OK, so it's not Hamlet, but it's also a no-brainer. Go online!

I'm referring here to web-enabling courses. Whether in a K-12 or university setting it is becoming increasingly easy to post course content online. Notes, homework, contact information, collaboration tools...You name it, they're all available. These systems are not only getting cheaper (many are free and open source), but many are often included with other services from your ISP or IT department.  So why not make use of them?

I just finished the first two courses of a Master's degree. One class was about as web-enabled as you can get without being offered online.  Notes were posted quickly, homework was distributed online, and the professor had a blast playing with his new tablet PC and posted all sorts of annotated video and screen shots.  If any of us happened to be absent, he would scan a student's set of notes and post those as well.  Class announcements were frequently posted online and group discussions were easy to facilitate.

The other class could not have been more different.  The professor was tenured and only taught this particular calculus course.  On the last night, she brought us brownies baked with the first eggs from her youngest chickens (I'm not kidding).  She would email us if needed and I actually scanned and emailed her an assignment once (her fax machine was broken), but that was the end of the technology.  If it couldn't be written on a chalkboard, it probably didn't have much value.  This class was remarkably painful, not just because it was a class on the applications of calculus, but because the easy access to class resources and communication tools (with the instructor and with other students) simply weren't there.

Fortunately, many of the students were taking both classes as a cohort, so we often co-opted the web resources for the first class to ease the shared pain of the calculus course.  The point is not that we could slack off because the professor posted everything online.  Rather, the online tools were genuinely helpful and fostered collaboration among professionals who live all over southern New England.

Teachers at our high school are just beginning to explore this, but so far, the benefit to students has already been considerable.  One teacher, although not terribly adventurous, emails weekly notes, test reviews, and a week-in-preview to her students.  Not the least bit sophisticated, but much appreciated by students and parents muddling through chemistry.  Another has online "office hours"; while this is nothing revolutionary at the college level, using chat/IM technology is still cool and relevant for high school kids.  A handful of teachers post other course content on class websites.  We're exploring the implementation of Edline (www.edline.net) next year to provide a unified framework for all teachers to interact with students online and to provide students and parents with a variety of course materials over the Web.

This isn't just tech for the sake of tech.  This is useful, cheap, and relevant, whether you're learning applications of differential equations (good times!) or you're taking pre-algebra.  Besides, where would you rather have kids spending their time?  Your school's website or MySpace?