Virtual Education: after four years

In order to pay off a big medical bill, I applied for a moonlighting job teaching with one of our state’s virtual academies. These are free online public charter schools with students all over the state. Since there are no overhead costs, other than an office suite in the capitol, each teacher receives the use of a very nice laptop plus scanner/printer ensemble and all the cool software goodies one would need. Qualifying students (free or reduced lunch, and those who otherwise qualify on application) receive the use of desktop computers and printers/scanners.

Almost all the coursework (K-12) is supplied by a famous educational software company. After four years, I can say that the academic content is smart and for the most part, delivered intelligently and attractively.

The course is supposed to be managed by a Learning Coach, usually a parent. When everything works as intended, this is often a good partnership, although when students reach their teens and when parents also work and when there are ESL issues and when there’s trauma or distress or when….well, you get the idea. It doesn’t always get done at home.

Proponents of this type of education insist this is the wave of the future. Not long from now, they opine, all learning will take place virtually in the comfort our our own homes.

This brings up a couple of important questions. First of all, is it healthy (or even sane) to sit younger children in front of computer screens for most of the day? True, the youngest children in the early grades are mostly tutored by their parent using the curriculum. Nevertheless, computer work is integral to the whole process. Is this good for littlies? How about the bigger kids?

As an art teacher, I have had to change my expectations. In my regular classroom, I can help students refine their work as they go along. I would say that this is even more important than my initial teaching of some idea or technique.

But in the virtual classroom, from a distance (yes, wafts of the song go through your head!), I can’t influence any actual artwork very much, other than saying, “Go back and …..), but the time gap between a student completing a project and me giving feedback is a day or two, and most of the time, the creative impetus is LONG gone.

Since this is a prefab curriculum (albeit, as I said, a good one), I can’t fine-tune the content or direction of the presentation at all. The quizzes and tests are automated so all of the academic learning about art history and theory goes along without me.

The strangest part of this whole setup is that I rarely see any student’s face. We communicate by email, chat, live Blackboard sessions, phone, and so on, but there’s none of that ineffable interpersonal communication that makes up a great deal of education, at least in my mind.

My vote? Still out, and here’s why. I did go to a school-wide field trip last month, and there I met a few of my students. Most of the attendees were the avid little ones, the ones with committed parents, young. The students I did meet, for the most part, surprised me. They were the handicapped, the “misfits,” the obvious targets of public-school bullying. They had soft faces, intelligent faces, sensitive. I got it! right away! that virtual schooling was a good way to protect these kids from harm’s way, at least till they grew up older and tougher.

These virtual schools also serve as a “school of last resort,” for kids who’ve been expelled from regular schools for criminal behavior. In these cases, it’s sometimes hard to keep the kids on task (poor parents!), but oddly it can give them the same chance, some time to grow up and get some sense.

I’ll be thinking and writing more about virtual ed as time goes on…stay tuned.

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