Where's the Discipline in Online Education?

by Robert D. Ring Jr.

Vince Lombardi undoubtedly had a methodology that was effective for his time and organization. As head coach for the Green Bay Packers, he led his troops to five National Football League championships and the first two Super Bowls while winning the lifetime affection of players.

At the core of his philosophy was personal responsibility and an ethic for hard work, dependability and sacrifice. If you are up for a debate, gather together a few educators who happen to be sports fans and ask the question: "Would Lombardi's military style of leadership be effective today?" Or perhaps more importantly: "Are our students acquiring the personal characteristics that will make them successful in the future?"

Lombardi believed that somewhere inside people craved the discipline that he provided. Could this be the case for our students today? If so, are we providing a disservice to online students when we do not attend to their need for discipline? Perhaps students today really do want greater discipline — to learn to be at a specific place at an assigned time and to follow the instructions given to them.

My Disclaimer
To avoid appearing hypocritical, let it be noted I'm not anti-technology. In fact, I serve on a steering committee in eastern Colorado for a virtual network that will provide distance learning to students in 17 rural schools for providing high-quality instruction.

The operative word here is "tool." A survey completed by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that during 2002-2003 approximately one-third of public school districts had students enrolled in distance education courses. Colorado is one of several states that enable students to receive a high school diploma online. There's a major difference between using online coursework as a supplement and using it as a primary source for education. In Colorado, online schools have seen enormous growth. The Colorado Department of Education released enrollment information with some cyber schools showing increases that range from 14 percent to 347 percent in the last year.

Students in our state and others are receiving diplomas from online schools, but have they received an education? Let's look a little closer.
Ultimately the goal of education is to prepare students for occupations that will allow them to be productive citizens. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment categorizes jobs using the Standard Occupational Classification. The list is eight pages long and includes employment positions from civil engineers to dishwasher. The jobs that aren't people oriented or require a structure to be successful are minimal. The point is, even with technology, we still need to have discipline to work with all kinds of people.

Students in many public schools are exposed to a melting pot of cultures and personalities, but this is not the case for those enrolled in an online school. These students miss out on the opportunity to learn how to work alongside others with whom they may have differences. And what occupation today doesnÕt require collaboration in pursuit of a task?

As old fashioned as it may seem, most schools have established consequences for those who do not appear in class on time. Employers still seek dependable individuals who have good communication skills.

Tomorrow's Workforce
There is no doubt that the face of our labor force is changing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the top three occupations with the largest job growth from 2004 to 2014 include retail sales, registered nurses and postsecondary teachers. These certainly seem like people-oriented positions. The fastest-growing service field is health care. The department projects an increase of 30 percent in health care positions, which equates to approximately 4.7 million additional positions by 2014. Despite these alarming statistics, we continue to hear more about Americans working from their homes.

Are there disadvantages? Working from home, much like an online class, may come at the cost of personal and professional relationships. On a day-to-day basis it appears we lose some of our tactfulness when we communicate primarily via electronic mail. It becomes much easier to be disrespectful when you are facing your monitor rather than your colleague.

Finally, let's not forget that most adult cyber workers were educated in a traditional environment that provided the experience of personal relationships. Students who complete their education online have not had these opportunities. Do we think our students will never have to deal with a negative co-worker and never have the fulfilling experience of finding a solution to a problem jointly with others? As Vince Lombardi once said: "Individual commitment to a group effort is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work."

As school leaders, we all can identify children who might benefit from taking their classes online — students with a long-term illness and those who relocate regularly come to mind. Online courses continue to provide an excellent supplement for students who want to pursue alternative learning opportunities. As educators responsible for preparing productive citizens, it is our obligation to ensure online education has a place but not necessarily serve as a replacement for what traditional schools can provide.

Isn't there still a need for the Lombardi approach?

Robert Ring is superintendent of Genoa-Hugo C-113, P.O. Box 342, Hugo, CO 80821. E-mail: