studying Italian
Studying foreign languages remotely. Cheerful female tutor teaching Italian on web, giving online lesson on smartphone
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Can a Virtual School Help Improve Learning?

From Discovery's Inquiry

Bill Gates said several years ago that “on a scale of one to ten, if a mediocre teacher is a three and Socrates was a nine, computers and software are about a four, with prospects of someday being a six or seven.”

It probably is true, indeed, that computers and educational software, by themselves, will never equate to a great or even a good teacher. But if today’s networked computing is enlisted, the possibilities become more promising. Networking connects the calculating, storage, retrieval and display power of electronic machines with people who have ideas, creativity, questions and emotions. It is a means of asking others for their opinions and of expressing your own. Its instantaneous reach is around the school or around the world.

The components of high-tech leaming already in use are impressive; from the increasingly popular and powerful Internet to the expanding corpus of educational software and CD-ROMS. Distance leaming video broadcasts have the power to bring the best lecturers to all students. Adding interactive techniques including wireless and Internet facilities-can create a much enriched personal experience for students, especially for those living a long distance from large schools.

If we hope to approach the “nine” of Socrates, however, we need to combine and organize such resources into a coherent program of leaming. We need to find out how emerging technological possibilities comport with human nature in practice. We must find out how the new technology works and how it can be made to work better if we are to know how to encourage its appropriate development and dissemination. It took generations to create the traditional classroom; the high technology leaming center of the future can and should be created in one: ours.

One way to concentrate progress in high-technology leaming, while avoiding disappointments and waste along the way, would be to organize a demonstration project that tested out new hardware, Internet services and software for varying kinds of learners. Call it a virtual school. In addition to combining different high-tech leaming techniques (both Internet and software, for example), it would pull together the lessons of existing experiments that operate solely with one kind of technology or in one kind of leaming environment. Today these experiences are scattered in n-tany homes, public and private schools, universities and high tech firms.

The virtual school project is not a job for govemment acting alone, nor for any one school, foundation or corporation. It should, however, collaborate with all levels and kinds of existing educational systems and educators-from state officials to home schoolers, from software manufacturers to telecommunications companies, from computer scientists to educational television stations, and with much attention to the actual students and their parents.

A virtual school is not one without human teachers. We may talk about the virtues of self-leaming, but even the greatest scholars usually operate within a community, and almost all fledgling students must have a structure and human guidance. But the nature of the teacher/pupfl relationship may well change as high technology is introduced.

One of the experiments in the virtual school, therefore, would seek to discover what kind of teacher/student interaction works best in a high-tech leaming environment. We mostly abandoned rote leaming years ago and yet we have found that total reliance upon student spontaneity does not yield measurable progress in knowledge and skflls-which is one of the major concerns of school refon-ners. With new hardware and software technologies, it should be possible to develop both new kinds of group interaction and self-directed learning. Accordingly, the job of the teacher is sure to be different, and it will take experience to discover how to teach in the high tech environment.

Likewise, what it means to be a student will change. For certain, it will not be appropriate to give each pupil a computer with CD-ROMs filled with great literature and hope that he or she will stumble across Nfilton or The Federalist Papers. Nor should we consider it sufficient to give students a connection to the Internet, which is a wonderful tool, but often referred to as “chaotic.” They will need some kind of guide-and some reliable accountability for results. It may be that the teaching model will be closer to the tutor of yore than to today’s classroom instructor. The “tutor” guides his or her pupil, suggests certain inquiries and requires a demonstration of increased knowledge and skill. Sometimes the tutor meets with the pupils as a group, sometimes singly-sometimes over the Internet and sometimes in person.

The virtual school, then, would be an association of educational tutors (teachers) and participants of all ages (students), organized and equipped to make maximum use of existing and new educational software and the Internet. The tutors would work together to devise curricula, combining desktop software, specific knowledge based resources on the Internet (such as the Harvard files on Greek architecture for a fine arts or history course …. ), Internet communication opportunities (pen pals in Italy for a course on Italian; topical bulletin boards on whales …. ), interactive video “classes” and personal meetings and field trips with students.

Assignments-and tests-in the virtual school would take place largely on the Internet. Scoring of exams would be faster and easier than now, and the whole idea of “exams” might change as learning patterns change.

Anyone could “audit” the experimental virtual school, but the tutorials would require preliminary application and approval. Whether he or she was a home schooler or someone attending a standard public or private school, a student would sign up with the virtual school for an actual course and be assigned a tutor. C)n the other hand, a tutor with his or her own group of students could also enter.

Imagine, for example, how a Garfield High School student who wanted to study Italian or some other language not now available in the Pubfic school system-might sign up for a beginning course with the virtual school. The curriculum for Italian would carry the student as far as he or she desired, with measurable milepost results satisfactory not only to the student but to his or her parents and Garfield advisor. The curriculum would be flexible enough, moreover, that a hundred students taking Italian through the virtual school could each learn in his own way and in varying real times, with wide choices of content to permit instructional custon-dzing. The students also would be part of an on-line, interactive, real time class. All would have some opportunity for face-to-face interaction, as desirable.

The tutors would be drawn from existing teachers at schools, supplemented by other people in the community. For example, the Garfield High School student who wanted to study Italian, n-dght have a knowledgeable language teacher at Garfield as the tutor or someone else in the community who was qualified to monitor his progress. Math and science teachers might be supplemented by Boeing engineers serving as tutors on the Internet. Lawyers might tutor constitutional law or environment and public policy.

While the virtual school would not bear any resemblance to the large physical structures Of today, it would probably actually exist in physical space as well as cyberspace and etherspace. There would be meeting rooms at an otherwise modest virtual school office where you occasionally could meet your tutor and probably other participants, as well. Rooms would be flexible in size and also would include the latest high quality video broadcasting and teleconferencing screens, as well as virtual reality facilities.

Most students would use the virtual school as an adjunct to their regular institutional or home school program. The dynamic of the school would be such, however, that it would be constantly iinproving itself and expanding, as the participants learned what worked and what didn’t.

Nationwide, schools are investing literally hundreds of millions of dollars in high technology products, often for school office improvements, but increasingly for student learning. The future is likely to see such investments expand exponentially. But planning for this development currently is sparse (Washington State is further along than most), and discouraging waste, therefore, is inevitable unless better information is available on what works and what does not. Teachers will need to be trained when they are still attending schools of educationonly a small fraction are computer literate nowand existing teachers need to be retrained. But trained to do what? A comprehensive virtual school experiment that is not beholden to any interest can help shorten the learning curve in the high-tech educational future.

If we want to pioneer in creating a virtual school in the Puget Sound area, we must build a constituency that believes, first, that the use and deployment of computer software, hardware and networks can measurably improve the learning process, and, second, that the new system should be able to justify itself in terms of measurable results for students and for the educational system as a whole. Technology should not become just another expensive addition to the present system. It should help transform education, facilitating the real reforms in productivity and cost-effectiveness.

But it can’t happen without some experimentation, some trial and error me use of high technology, in other words, to learn more about high tech learning.

Tom Alberg

Former Chairman of the Board, Discovery Institute, and Managing Director, Madrona Venture Group
Tom Alberg served as Discovery Institute's Chairman of the Board for over a decade and was crucial in its founding. Prior to co-founding Madrona Venture Group in 1995, Mr. Alberg served as President of LIN Broadcasting Corporation and Executive Vice President of McCaw Cellular Communications, Inc. He currently serves as a director for Madrona portfolio companies, including Impinj, and Wireless Services. In addition, he serves on the boards of two public technology companies, Advanced Digital Information Corporation and, located in the Northwest.