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A New Virtual Reality

I have a friend who teaches in an area of New Jersey that has been hit with several snowstorms.  So far, twenty eight days into the new year they have used six of their eight allotted snow days already.  What happens when they run out snow days?  They are mandated to use vacation days to make up for the time missed. One year, New Jersey was hit so hard with snow storms that some of the public schools had to operate through the last day of June.

This wreaks havoc with family vacations, graduations, summer employment, so some districts are seeking alternative ways to compensate for seat time- online education. Students in rural western Ohio are experimenting with online school during severe weather.  The online pilot program will help determine how to insure educational continuity even during inclement weather.  I believe it will also lay the ground work for the future of learning via online public education.

Virtual education is not new.  Private universities, colleges and tech schools have been operating online programs for years offering everything from certificates to associates degrees  to PhDs.  Public universities have also been gradually increasing their online curriculum to supplement classroom course work.  Recently, the California legislature has received a recommendation for the California State University system to increase its online offerings to allow more students to be able to attend college.  The state university system in California has taken a beating over the last few years with slashed state budgets and fee increases of more than thirty percent.  According to an article in the Daily Californian (November 2, 2010), colleges can use computer learning as a “tool to increase enrollment without building infrastructures or hiring more personnel.  It reduces attendance costs and allows for more accessibility”. 

With the push for state colleges and universities to increase online education, can public high schools be far behind?  If some districts are using it to accommodate inclement weather, what would prevent them from using it for the same purpose that the California legislature suggests for the state university system — to increase enrollment without the cost of staff or infrastructure?  Is K-12 public education as we know it doomed?

Cyber-ed already exists on the internet.  There are hundreds of sites advertising comprehensive K-12 education programs that students can log on to.  Some are regionally based, some national.  Some are accredited, some are not.  In browsing several of the online high school sites I noted that most offer “chat” time with teachers, some offer the ability to interact live with others as if in a regular classroom.  Homerooms are available on some sites, electronic grade books, state tests, even extra curricular activities exist, all through the magic of technology. Students can log on throughout the day, with some sites mandating set times to “attend” class.

Last year, the San Jose Unified School District in San Jose, California, offered the first online public education program in a joint venture with Kaplan Virtual Education.  The program offers students in grades six through twelve an opportunity to enroll in an individualized, WASC accredited education program.  Diploma included.  Students throughout the Santa Clara County area who “for one reason or another find the traditional classroom setting difficult or incapable of meeting their needs” can enroll in the program.  It is not clear what criteria is used to assess a student’s eligibility into the program.  It is also difficult to decipher how these “virtual students” are counted for the district ADA — the average daily attendance data used to determine how much money a district receives.  What is certain is that the state will be tracking these students and watching this program carefully to determine if it is successful enough to recommend as an “alternative placement” for other districts to consider.  If so, public education as we know it is sure to change.

In a state like cash strapped California, public cyber-schools could replace high cost continuation schools and alternative placement settings.  Instruction for juvenile offenders could easily be accommodated through online classes.  Adult education, continuing education can all be offered through websites.  Students with chronic attendance problems can be assigned to an online school which would deliver their educational program directly to their home.  The state could save billions of dollars in textbook and materials, staffing, training, liability costs, utilities and facilities expenditures.

So what happens to classrooms?  Teachers?  Real honest, real life hands on educational experiences?  Are traditional classrooms on the way out?  What does virtual PE look like?  How do you submit a sculpture online?  The look of public education is changing and must change to adapt to the needs of the evolving world and contemporary learners.  But while we embrace and utilize technology to allow for these advancements, we need to remember to use it as a tool to supplement, not supplant a real educational experience.

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