To School, Virtually
Sept 30, 2012

by tmartin on September 30, 2012

SO, I’VE SPENT SEPTEMBER transitioning to high school. It was hard!  But for some reason the actual incoming freshman student zoomed through the month unfazed and seemingly untouched by it all. Maybe it’s only hard on us Moms.

Over the summer, we started the high school experience in a whole new way: virtually. As in, literally enrolling in VHS, Virtual High School in Maynard, Mass. (http://thevhscollaborative.org)

Mathophobes, close your ears at this one. I’ve a got a kid who thinks the perfect day contains art, math, science, and more art. In order to take geometry in the real world, non-virtual high school in our town … and to have the math underpinnings for physics this September …  she actively and with great pleasure asked to take Algebra over the summer. The best option? Online.

VHS uses a model of serving as a hub for high school course work. Teachers from its member schools develop the classes and teach them, using their expertise in content, teaching and learning, and the dynamics of student interaction to form the nucleus of the virtual school.

Students from literally around the world take the classes. The catalog contains more than 150 selections, from the basic to the unique, from A (Algebra!) to W (World Religions) with stops at the Vietnam War, Colonial America, Video Game Design, Statistics, the Glory of Ancient Rome, Marketing and the Internet, Mandarin Chinese, Genes & Disease, Art of the Caribbean Islands, and all the other usual suspects in-between.

Child-of-Mine took a full year of Algebra in 8 weeks. This turns out to be a lot of Algebra. And it also turned out to be a perfect way to highlight the strengths – and weaknesses – of virtual education.

Online classes have been offered at one level or another for the past decade – or more. The New School for Social Research in New York was offering hybrid college classes – a combo of online and in person – almost as soon as you could say modem.

This school season, virtual education virtually buzzes with trendiness. Districts eye it as a way to extend their offerings … or to cut costs. Educators explore the benefits of in class and out of class teaching and have developed models they say reach students in new ways. Private virtual schools claim they can outsource education more effectively by getting rid of brick and mortar classrooms.

NBC News reported this week that the State of Ohio started the school year with 30,000 school children enrolled in one of its seven virtual schools, more than 12 times the number that used the medium in 2000 when Ohio’s first virtual school called it inaugural class to order. If the virtual students were grouped into one district, they would form the third-largest school district in Ohio, approximately the same size as the Cincinnati school district.

In Massachusetts, the Commonwealth Virtual Schools Act (http://www.mass.gov/legis/journal/desktop/Current%20Agenda%202011/H4274.pdf) sit on the table at the statehouse. It proposes allowing a local school district or consortia of districts to open a charter … in virtual form.

Someplace in all this development, privatization of education has gotten entwined with digitization of education and co-mingled the two issues into one. And that’s leading some people to worry.

The announcement earlier this year that Eagle County, CO, about 100 miles outside of Denver, chose to lay off three foreign language teachers and replace them with online courses as part of a larger slice and dice budget axe to the schools, sparked controversy — to say the least.

Online trade publication Education Week just ran a multi-part series about online education and education policy. (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edtechresearcher/2012/09/the_yoking_of_virtual_schools_and_educational_privatization.html)  suggesting that virtual schools be open schools – that is, that they make their curriculum and innovation open to any comers, as a means of separating out the profit to be found in operating virtual schools, from the education effectiveness of the virtual option.

And if all this weren’t enough, the content inside schools – be they brick and mortar or virtual – has entered a period of transition as well. From Kahn Academy’s online tutorials to digital textbooks, it’s a whole new semester.

The national State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) released a report this week saying schools should move to all digital materials sooner rather than later. As they see it, by the time this year’s high school freshman are starting their college career, text books will be history. That, momfully speaking, is a blink of the eye.

In “Out of Print” (http://www.setda.org/c/document_library/get_file?folderId=321&name=DLFE-1587.pdf)  the organization wrote that it:

… is not a question if the reimagining of the textbook will permeate all of education, but only a matter of how and how fast,”

and recommended that schools complete the transition from printed texts to digital content no later than the 2017-18 school year.

Schools typically consume the largest portion of a municipal budget. They drive property values and shape the generation that will feed us in our old age.

Everyone has a vested interest in schools, regardless of whether their house holds an enrolled student or not. The shaping of the digital schools impacts us all – and maybe it takes the whole community to shape them into that which we want them to be.

You see, a school from 1940 and a school from 2000 might have looked a little different, but the essential core remained the same. The same cannot be said for the school of 2020.

This change – this very real shift – is more profound that we realize. Thank goodness teenagers are around to help ground it.

In all the theory and doubt and fear and excitement, some things remain utterly consistent – like the way teens require carrots and sticks to keep moving forward!

The virtual Algebra class had 29 students, ranging in age from 7th to 11th grade. They lived in Korea, in Nantucket, in Connecticut, in Vermont, on the Cape, in the south, in the west, in the north, in the east, in the US and in places abroad. The teacher lived in Georgia. In her other life she teaches at a high school near Atlanta.

No printed texts here! Content appeared in digital form. Lectures – with captions – happened in prerecorded video, letting kids listen, stop, pause, take notes, and replay, at their own speed and as many times as they needed.

Classroom conversation happened in forums. Every voice had an equal change to be heard. The clothes a student wore, their haircut, their speaking style, and all those other physical components that can set perception — disappeared.

But it took the knowledge of an experienced teacher to turn content material and a place to connect into a meaningful and effective learning experience. Perhaps there are some people who dive in and learn, totally and completely self-motivated, needing no human feedback. I don’t know anyone like that.

I do know that digital content alone wouldn’t have been enough. A forum with posts wouldn’t have been enough.

The teacher – working directly with students through online chats, guiding them through assignments, coaching them, listening and seeing where a student went off track and then using well-honed skills to lead them back – that remains the place where the rubber meets the road, the place where teaching and learning cross paths and create a moment where students leap forward.

Whether that interaction happens in a physical classroom or a virtual one is moot. Nothing can yet replicate that moment, that amazing moment where a kid says, “ah ha, I get it “ and zips on ahead to a new level of understanding. It remains a very human interaction, wherever and whenever it happens to take place.

School, as we’ve known it for generations, won’t be the same. Books might appear on ipads. Interactive apps and audio and video share content in new ways

But learning? Well, I’m not sure that’s going to change so much.

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