From Now On
|Vol 10|No 6|March|2001|
Note: The opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect an FNO editorial point of view. Spelling is Australian.
Is Virtual Schooling a Virtual Reality?
By Glenn Russell © 2001, Glenn Russell, all rights reserved.
In a story set in AD 400, Ray Bradbury tells of Emperor Yuan, who was sipping tea near the Great Wall of China. The great wall was important in the defence of the country, and anything which threatened it was taken seriously. The Emperor observed a man who was flying above the wall with the aid of a kite or hang glider.
"Here is the man who has made a certain machine," said the Emperor, "and yet he asks us what he has created. He does not know himself. It is only necessary that he create, without knowing why he has done so, or what this thing will do".
Similar observations apply to the spread of virtual schools in the 21st century. They are, at present, few in number. However, as with the airman in Bradbury's story, there are doubtless those who know how the technology works, but have not reflected on its significance.
The acceptance of virtual schools is likely to lead to changes in conventional schooling. In some cases, the subject offerings in schools will be reduced or changed due to perceptions that virtual schools are more efficient. In other cases, conventional schools and their teachers may be pressured or even replaced by the competition. These possibilities must be seen in context against a background where the long-term socialisation of students in virtual schools is unknown, and the higher education sector has already provided an example of rapid virtualisation.
Types of virtual schools
One reason why it is sometimes difficult to reflect on the future impact of virtual schools is that there are a number of different models. Because the concept of a virtual school is still emerging, and the related technology is constantly changing, trying to define a virtual school is like attempting to hit a moving target. Virtual schools can be divided into three broad categories. These are the independent, collaborative and broadcast models, respectively. All virtual schools discussed in this essay rely on the Internet in some way.
Learning is unscheduled. Students can access and interact with materials whenever they wish. There are no chat or videoconferencing facilities, but e-mail may be used. This model can also be referred to as "asynchchronous", because it does not rely on real-time, direct communication between students and teachers.
Students access lectures or broadcasts, usually on the World Wide Web. The opportunity for interaction is often restricted.
The combination of the preceding virtual school types enables students in virtual schools to participate in a wide range of learning experiences. In addition, some virtual schools also incorporate predecessor technologies of distance education, such as telephone and mail.
Recent developments in virtual schools
Some virtual schools that can be found on the Internet are in reality just a virtual tour of an established school, or its surrounding community, such as Crick County Primary School in England. There are web pages which teachers use with their classes, school sites that provide information for parents and students, and interactive web-based courses that allow students to complete remedial or extension work, such as the Virtual School for the Gifted.
While these approaches present few obvious problems, another form of virtual schools is of more concern. These virtual schools allow students to work from home, using the Internet, and complete some or all of their elementary or high school work without being part of a conventional classroom.
There are several examples. Babbage Net School suggest on their web page that their organization "enables people to complete Junior and Senior High School courses without the need to commute to a school campus", while CyberHigh, in California, has announced that "it is no longer necessary to learn from a textbook alone or to follow a set schedule of class time...The classroom walls are taken down and learning is possible anytime the student has access to a computer ...and the Internet". In Kentucky, Governor Patton supported the Kentucky Virtual High School in a speech in which he argued that the school would improve equality of opportunity for students, especially in rural areas, and that courses would be available for regular students, home schoolers, the home bound, and those in the Juvenile Justice System.
Challenging conventional schooling
The addition of "regular students" to the list of those who will be able to participate in the Kentucky Virtual High School is disturbing. The implication is that virtual schooling is no longer restricted to those who cannot attend a conventional school. Instead, students can choose a virtual school if they wish.
This development is, however, ill advised. While it is only a small beginning, it legitimizes a dual system of education, in which mainstream conventional schools compete for students alongside their virtual counterparts. There is an implicit assumption that virtual schools can do an equal or better job than the types of schools which have served us well (on the whole), for more than a hundred years. And, while some virtual schools specifically state on their website that their intention is not to replace conventional schools or teachers, the way that online technology is used is not always under their control.
What is the purpose of school?
Several unfortunate consequences are possible when virtual schooling is substituted for its conventional counterpart:
An alternative schooling system should reasonably hold out the promise that as students mature they will be tolerant and understanding citizens. While there is online interaction in some types of virtual schools, it is not clear that it will be of the same nature as that found in traditional schools. My worst-case scenario is that some students will grow up unable to properly relate to others. Instead of playing or interacting with the children in their class, they will be working alone with their computer. A generation may grow up without the social skills necessary for a rapidly changing world. There is, of course, no way of predicting the future, so it is impossible to predict whether major changes to our educational system will lead to increases in social ills such as crime and drug use. However, it would be irresponsible to encourage a radically different educational system without a great deal of thought.
The pressure to become virtual
The system which we have used for more than a hundred years is not going to vanish overnight, or even in a few years. It is more likely that virtual schools will become a small but permanent part of the educational landscape, and that they will gradually become real competitors. It would be easy to view this process as entirely reasonable. After all, some forms of distance education have existed for many years with few serious effects, and competition is implicit in the way of life of many industrialised societies.
What differentiates virtual schools from their predecessors, which used pre-Internet technologies such as mail and the telephone, is the technological-financial context. The move to become virtual is set against a backdrop where there have already been major shifts to online education in the higher education sector, and many parents know that it isn't always necessary to attend a physical university in order to earn a degree. There is also a relentless pressure from large corporations and entrepreneurs who are planning an assault on the potentially lucrative school market.
How the virtual school is likely to become established
The way in which the virtual school is likely to be implemented can be best illustrated with a hypothetical example:
Ms. Williams is the Principal of a coeducational private high school. She has a meeting with parents of a child who is currently enrolled at the school. The parents advise her that they are considering withdrawing their daughter, Jessica, from the school because Japanese is not currently offered. In reply, Ms. Williams tells the parents that Japanese is now available through a virtual school, and that their daughter will be supervised while she learns in a computer lab. This experiment seems to work, and Jessica remains at the school.
In the following year, the Principal decides that a small class that she had intended to offer in another subject is not economically viable. Instead, it is offered in virtual mode only, and the teacher position that would have been available is withdrawn. Gradually, Ms. Williams' school drops most of its smaller classes, and runs them in virtual mode. The school uses inexpensive tutors to supervise these groups. Some of the senior students are allowed to work from home for part of the week, where parents take responsibility for them.
Concurrently, in another suburb, a single mother receives an interesting flyer from an entrepreneurial corporation involving virtual schools. They will provide all the subjects for her child, on-line, providing that she can gain access to a computer with Internet access, and that she provides supervision. The cost is reasonable, considering that there will be no need for transport to school, school uniforms, and private school fees. The course is accredited, and supported by the local educational authority, which anticipates saving money on new school buildings.
The cumulative effect of these changes is that traditional schools will be pressured to convert smaller classes to virtual mode, particularly when physical activity is not as important. Schools will be more likely to concentrate on classes such as physical education and sport, or larger classes that justify a teacher. In some areas, virtual schools may be seen as a cheaper alternative, and this could add another dimension to the digital divide between rich and poor.
The availability of a technology that appears to offer a cheaper way of educating students is likely to lead to a loss of political will in the funding of education. School budgets will then be cut over the next few years. The expansion of virtual schools could be profitable to on-line companies who are likely to lobby intensively in order to sell their product in the marketplace.
Avoiding educational meltdown
The preceding scenarios are bleak, but if educators are aware that a problem exists, the effects may be much less severe. Action must be taken to block virtual schools that are not driven by the students' needs. Where there is a genuine disability, or inability to attend school because of extreme isolation, there is a continued need for a virtual school alternative. However, the concept of extending the virtual school to all, without consideration of the abilities or circumstances of the students involved, is potentially dangerous. To accept such a change without evidence that it will be better, plays into the hands of on-line companies who disregard ethics in the search for profit.
The solution is not to avoid the problem by insisting that it could never happen, or that the enabling technology will disappear. The system of parents sending their children off to school in a separate building has existed since the days of the industrial revolution in the early Nineteenth Century, but this does not mean that it will always continue unchanged. On-line computer technology does have an important role to play in students' education, by allowing engaged learners to work collaboratively in classes, and permitting parents and educators to be part of a learning community. However, we need to be alert for the economic rationalists and spin-doctors who might damage the educational experience for children by presenting virtual schools as the solution. The particular type of virtual schools described in this essay may ultimately result in more problems than the system that they replace.
It is likely that widespread adoption of virtual schools will lead to reduced funding for conventional schools, changes to the nature and range of available subjects, some reduction in conventional schools and their teachers, limited socialisation, and a future society which is a little less human than today.
Disturbing customary practices with new technology
Virtual schools have the potential to disturb the customary ways that schools go about their business of educating students. A story that illustrates the clash between a new technology and custom comes from the pages of the New York Times, of October 31, 1901. It seems that a Doctor Collard had alighted from his buggy, and was standing next to it, with the reins in his hands, when "an electric motor flashed by". His horse was so alarmed by this appearance that it bolted, dragging the doctor with it. The doctor sued, claiming that he would have a nervous condition for the rest of his life. Although the driver of the car was found not guilty, it is difficult not to have a great deal of sympathy for the Doctor, and for all people whose lives are disturbed by new technologies. Virtual schools are also likely to have a significant long-term impact. Ray Bradbury was well aware of the problem. Those who introduce a new technology are often unaware of the ways that the world will change because of it.
Dr. Glenn Russell is a lecturer at the Faculty of Education, Peninsula Campus, Monash University, Victoria, Australia. He has previously published articles on virtual schools, the future of schooling, hypertext, and cyberspace. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.