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Friday, March 12, 2010


One of the nicest things about belonging to social networking groups is the people that you meet there, and the ideas that you exchange. One of the best ideas that I’ve seen lately is people that are trying to set up virtual learning and virtual classrooms. It’s an interesting concept that’s been talked about and discussed for years, and, now, with all of the schools all over the country that closing their doors for lack of money, maybe it’s an idea whose time has come.

So, what is virtual learning, or virtual education? According to Wikipedia (, it’s “a term describing online education using the Internet. This term is primarily used in higher education where so-called Virtual Universities have been established. Virtual courses, which is a synonym is online courses – are courses delivered on the Internet. "Virtual" is used here to characterize the fact that the course is not taught in a classroom face-to-face but through some substitute mode that can be associated with classroom teaching. A virtual program (or a virtual course of studies) is a study program in which all courses or at least a significant portion of the courses are virtual courses.”

Historically, American students' learning opportunities have been limited and shaped by factors beyond their control. Geography has been an important factor as well; do the children live near a good school? It’s been my experience that bussing kiddos doesn’t really do much except wear them out before they ever get to a classroom, if the bus ride is longer than 20 or 30 minutes. Even some of the good charter schools fall victim to the geography of the system. Access to quality instruction has been another factor, which raises the question of whether or not the child was placed in a class with the best teacher for that particular student. Are the teacher's lessons, designed to instruct a classroom of 16 or more students, tailored to the child’s learning level, learning style, and interests? In a lot of cases, the lesson plans are pretty much one-size-fits-all, which in and of itself has raised all sorts of problems. Since most public schools are geared towards a level playing field for all students, the brightest children are very often held back both intellectually and academically to the lowest common denominator. That’s not the child’s fault, nor is it the fault of the teacher.

So, how will virtual education and virtual classrooms address this problem?

The development and proliferation of online learning and virtual learning options is beginning to break down these particular barriers, and it's a jolly good thing, too. In the very near future, students will be able to receive customized instruction from teachers anywhere in the United States, or even in the world. The best teachers will use technology to reach many more students. Virtual and blended-learning programs will enable mass customization in education, allowing students to learn at their own pace in ways that are tailored to their learning styles and interests. Now, mark that last statement well: The students will be able to learn at their OWN PACE, and they’ll be able to learn as much as they want to, as quickly as they want to. They’ll be able to go forward in the learning process as quickly as they can assimilate the knowledge, and they’ll have a much wider range of subject matter than that which is available now. This is a good thing, no?

Look at the success of the online universities, if you need another reason to cheer about this. Online universities are proliferating at a great rate, and they are cheaper than traditional land-based, classroom intensive colleges. If a student can pass the entrance examination and pay the fees, they will get as good an education as the students in more traditional, brick and mortar learning centers. They will be able to take the courses that they want to, and learn at their own pace and in their own time. As many as 1 million children (roughly 2 percent of the K-12 student population) are participating in some form of online learning. Today, 27 states offer statewide virtual schools that allow students to take a class online, and 24 states and the District of Columbia offer students the opportunity to attend a virtual school full-time. Growing numbers of school districts are offering virtual learning options that include supplemental instruction or blended-learning programs, which use online learning in combination with face-to-face instruction. Enrollment in online learning programs is not only expected to grow over the next decade, it’s projected to explode. One analysis has predicted that half of high school classes will be online within a decade. I personally think that around 75% of all high-school education will be online in 5 years or less.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education published a meta-analysis of evidence-based studies of K-12 and post-secondary online learning programs. The study reported that "students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction." In addition, online learning has the potential to improve productivity and lower the cost of education, reducing the burden on taxpayers. Think about that last statement: Online classroom have the potential to LOWER the cost of education (which would in turn lower the property taxes that fund that education), while still providing an education that is just as good and meaningful as more traditional methods of education.
There are still some concerns that have been expressed about this system, chief of which is the socialization that comes with actually being physically present in a classroom with other students. Isaac Asimov spoke to the dangers of isolation and living in a virtual world in the CAVES OF STEEL, one of his books about R. Daneel Olivaw and his human counterpart, Elijah Baley. One of the main characters kills himself before he can be taken into custody, because of a very Solarian fear of human contact. Of course, this is something that, ironically, that the opponents of home-schooling use as one of their arguments against the practice – NO SOCILIAZATION. Which, of course, is absolute bullshit.

Homeschoolers often take advantage of educational opportunities at museums, community centers, athletic clubs, after-school programs, churches, science preserves, parks, and other community resources. Secondary school level students may take classes at community colleges, which typically have open admission policies. In many communities, homeschooling parents and students participate in community theater, dance, band, symphony, and chorale opportunities. Groups of homeschooling families often join together to create homeschool co-ops. I can see virtual learning going this particular route as well, and I personally think that this is a wonderful idea.

H’mmmm . . . cheaper education, learn at your own pace, have world-wide access to learning about all sorts of things that a kiddo doesn’t usually get to learn about before adulthood, better teaching methods, better education, and possibly lower taxes.

What’s NOT to love here?

1 comment:

  1. Cordelia.payne@gmail.comMarch 12, 2010 at 3:04 PM

    Our daughter will be taking advantage of a virtual classroom next year. We homeschooled her for two years, and then did a combination of homeschool, classroom ed through our old district. It was WONDERFUL. The old district offered this THROUGH them, which meant they offered all materials. This included disposables, use of facilities, field trips, and all sorts of social activities. There was no concern about not meeting state guidelines, and every opportunity for her to excel beyond grade level. As long as we met the states guidelines and showed that progress at bi-weekly meetings, she could explore anywhere she wanted, and that progress was well marked.

    For a child that had been through the things she had, this was particularly important. She was able to do a LOT of healing during that time.

    Our new district did not offer those opportunities at her grade level, and homeschooling is much more restricted here. However, the district itself was much more flexible, and the teachers were more understanding. They have worked very hard to meet the kids needs. Even diagnosing a learning disability in my son that *I* knew was there, but the old district would not acknowledge.

    To that end, this new district offers a virtual classroom, among other interesting opportunities. Including allowing high school students portability between high schools within the district so that they can get the best education during their high school years. Since each high school in the district specializes in specific things: arts and drama, rotc, etc. Students can move with ease from school to school to build a nice portfolio before graduation to ease transition to a college major.

    Since my daughter does not do well in crowded classrooms, this will be especially important for her. The virtual classroom will allow her to focus on her core subjects at home, and go to the arts magnet school for what she loves; Drama!

    Our son can easily go join ROTC, and port to the local school with a better football team to build on that!