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Building virtual schools for the future
Bob Harrison, Education Adviser, Toshiba Information Systems (UK) Ltd
In her futuristic book 'Tomorrow's People' (www.culturewars.org.uk/2003-03/tomorrow.htm), Susan Greenfield poses the following question: "What should we be teaching the next generation to equip them for citizenship in the mid 21st century and beyond?"
She poses this question in a reflective and yet futuristic look at the education system in Chapter 6 of the book, entitled 'Education; what we need to learn', which is focused on the way the human brain reflects, in physical form and function, personal experiences. She also suggests our current education system is more a product of the Industrial Age rather than suited to the Information Age.
Greenfield goes on to explore the notion of virtual schools and universities, because: "if the maturing of the Information Age is to revolutionise all aspects of the education system from how we learn and what we learn to what we learn with and when we learn then it is no surprise that where we learn will be another change."
The Oblingers' book, 'Educating the Net Generation' (www.educause.edu/EducatingtheNetGeneration/5989), really does pose a challenge for the current way in which the education system is organised, managed and assessed by the 'Industrial generation' for the benefit of the 'Information generation'.
Glen Russell, lecturer in education at Monash University, sees three types of virtual school on the horizon:
- independent schools where students access and interact with schools whenever they wish
- synchronous schools where scheduled online activities take place with other students and teachers consisting of online dialogue and video-conferencing
- broadcast schools where students would access broadcasts and lectures on the web.
Russell suggests that all three types of school could combine, but he poses a more fundamental and profound question: "But the big issue that virtual education throws into focus is what is a school actually for?"
Greenfield goes on to explore this issue further by claiming that the development of real face-to-face human relations is as important as learning facts. She suggests that the consequences of switching to virtual schooling could be that students will fail to develop an understanding of their emotions and the emotions of others. Should that responsibility be the monopoly of schools?
Of course 'virtual schools' already exist. Stephen Heppell's creation Notschool (www.notschool.net) boasts completion and progression rates the envy of many 'real'schools and universities.
Another example of virtual high schools is the cooperative model demonstrated by Virtual High School (www.govhs.org/Pages/Welcome-Home), which has over 7,000 students from 394 member schools following 237 courses.
Reference to www.shambles.net/pages/school/vschools/ will reveal a plethora of different types of 'virtual school', and a 'virtual college' also exists (www.virtual-college.co.uk).
Australia has the Virtual School for the Gifted: www.vsg.edu.au/default.htm.
The UK also has the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth which has online courses and residential events at a range of Universities across the country: www.nagty.ac.uk/about/index.aspx.
So is there a future for virtual high schools?
On route from the 5th annual mobile learning conference, hosted by Athabasca University (the Canadian OU with 34,000 online students per year) in Banff (Alberta, Canada), I took a short flight down to San Francisco to spend an afternoon at the Stanford Virtual High School with Ray Ravaglia, Deputy Director of the Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY).
Stanford, of course, is the alma mater of the founders of Google, Apple, Hewlett-Packard and many other e-innovations. so it has a bit of a track record of being ahead of the game in computer technologies and their application.
Ray explained how something that was conceived originally for talented and gifted students is now developing into something for all learners of all abilities.
Originally funded by the National Science Foundation and conceived in the 1960s by Professor Patrick Suppes in the Maths faculty at Stanford, the project has now evolved into accelerated learning programmes in all the sciences and it is planned to become a completely virtual high school for all subjects by 2008.
Originally, collaboration with schools was difficult, Ray explained: "Schools either said 'we don't have any gifted and talented students' or 'not extra for those students'. But then came the 'no child left behind' legislation and that caused us to rethink and refocus."
The EPGY now has an additional aim to provide a differentiated curriculum in collaboration with schools for all abilities. This includes a package of support including software, CPD and ongoing consultancy to support local ownership and implementation. "The aim is to empower the learner," explained Ray, "to develop a blend of learning to suit their individual learning style and need." (Personalisation?)
This approach is now the subject of a pilot study with 14 schools and randomised control trials. "I really expect that the pilot group will show significant improvement," said Ray.
The curriculum offer is being expanded to include all the sciences, social sciences, economics, humanities and foreign languages (Latin and Mandarin, interestingly).
Ray is unapologetic about the high academic content and stresses the importance Stanford is placing on student support, counselling and guidance to blend with the "real-time virtual classroom with video-conferencing and shared whiteboard."
As well as 'online socialising', Stanford also provides a summer school on the Palo Alto campus where philosophy, democracy and truth will form part of the curriculum. "We wanted a curriculum for the summer school where all the learners would be starting from a similar baseline," said Ray.
The target enrolment of 300 will be 'need blind' thanks to the endowment support available at Stanford, but Ray believes this is just the tip of the iceberg and he passionately thinks that for $50 per child Stanford could provide accelerated learning for all the children in the State of California. He sees the major obstacles to this dream as bandwidth for media-rich content, access to computers and school superintendents' scepticism.
With his passion and Stanford's track record in innovation, technology and learning it may not be too long before they are virtually there!
The UK government has its multi-billion pound project Building Schools for the Future, and if Oblinger, Greenfield and Stanford, who all seem to be on the same wavelength, are to be believed then perhaps we should be thinking about the notion of Building Virtual Schools for the Future (BVSF?); perhaps we should be reconsidering the balance of our investment in bricks and glass?
Bob Harrison is a teacher and tutor for NCSL as well as a consultant with the DfES Improvement Group. He is also Education Adviser to Toshiba Information Systems (UK) Ltd and is advising consortiums working on the BSF project. Bob is writing in a personal capacity and can be contacted via www.setuk.co.uk .