October 20th, 2009

The answer is resoundingly yes. Our K-12 system is in the tank and getting worse with furloughs. On Monday, there was an article in the Advertiser about Virtual Schools, and although it was one of those wire service articles talking about various places on the Mainland, it got me thinking about whether there could be a kind of educational arbitrage between those places and Hawaii.

So what’s not to like. Virtual classes allow for maximum flexibility on both sides of the equation. Kids can learn where and when they want, and schools aren’t burdened because it’s mostly online. Not to say that all kids would do well in this setting – as with virtual offices, some people are better at working online than others. There’s always the possibility of distraction, and you have to discipline yourself. If you do, you’ll learn more and do it at your own pace.

Virtual schools and classes are apparently getting very popular and spreading all over the mainland and beyond. Sometimes they’re private and sometimes they’re run by state governments or school districts. Florida, Kansas and Missouri, are running major virtual programs, and with notable success.

Look at any virtual school online catalog. The courses cover the field, not just in technology subject but in math, biology, physics, marine science, chemistry, languages, culture, geography, history, economics, psychology, and more. The list goes on. Anything you can take in school, you can take in virtual school.

This is just another example of how technology, and especially the internet, can solve problems we can’t otherwise solve. What’s more is that when you develop curricula and software in one state, you can easily scale them up and export them to other states. Where K-12 education can be frighteningly expensive, as in Hawaii, virtual programs are cheap and can save lots of taxpayer money.

The metrics are built in, and that saves even more time and money. There are sophisticated programs to measure progress and share it with students and parents. Achievement data is already on the web, all right there for the taking.

It’s not as if the virtual student doesn’t have the chance to interact in these programs. The kids in these programs have plenty of interaction. The software is available around the clock, and on the web their virtual classmates are easily available too. The teachers in these virtual programs regularly meet with students online and many will do chat outside of school hours. That’s great, and that’s dedication. It must be exciting to be a teacher in a virtual program.

And why not? Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) in Pioneer Plaza has been organizing distance learning and virtual classes all over the Pacific Islands for years, right down to video graduations involving graduates from all those islands. They’ve had great success in teaching over the miles.

Surely, the graduate research model of collaborating with colleagues around the world would also work in K-12. Why can’t we have a virtual class that crosses national or continental boundaries? Wouldn’t it be great if your kid was in a class with students in a dozen countries around the world? University of Phoenix has developed this for college students, but why not high school too.

Some people worry about lack of physical participation in a virtual program. But you can give a speech, have a debate, present a recital and engage with teachers and other students on the web. When you want do something physical you can go to school and play in the orchestra, go to the gym or a school dance. Certainly, all virtual classes will make Jack a dull boy, so the answer is a mixture where you attend school some of the time and virtual classes at other times. That’s the way it seems to be heading the mainland.

Judging from what’s happening around the country, virtual programs are the wave of the future, and a wonderful sea change at that. Judging from the web, there’s a groundswell of interest and growth. Although Hawaii has the Hawaii Virtual School, it’s a part of Illuminated Learning out of Atlanta. We need to do more. Award winning virtual software has been developed, and it’s low hanging fruit. What are we waiting for? Our kids have plenty of time for virtual courses these days – they’re only getting taught 130 hours a month.

Just as charter schools, we’d like virtual programs to solve all the problems our educational system. That’s not likely to happen, at least not at first. But in many ways, virtual programs could be a magic bullet for at least some students to get to the next level with a minimum of effort and public expense. It’s not “no child left behind”, but “every child has the opportunity to learn at his own pace.”

That doesn’t sound bad at all. And as Hawaii’s schools continue their decline, virtual programs are going to look better and better. So let’s start doing it now. Check it out on Google – search for the Virtual High School Global Consortium, which is comprised of more than 500 member schools from 29 states and 34 countries. Is Hawaii keeping up or are we missing something? You decide.

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  1. zzzzzz:

    We already are getting there. Some charter schools are largely virtual.