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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Will the Virtual Classroom Redefine What it Means to be a Student -- or a Teacher?

This question is the second sentence from an article by Christina Wood entitled "High School Goes Virtual" (original article available at: http://www.edutopia.org/magazine/ed1article.php?id=art_1270&issue=apr_05&d=0330).

Will the virtual classroom redefine what it means to be a student -- or a teacher?
The author of the article, however, fails to really address this fundamental question. The article describes the types of students that are targetted by (e.g., "the Illinois Virtual High School targets students in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods, where it's often difficult to keep qualified teachers in key subject areas") or attracted to (e.g., "the flexibility of online learning is a big draw for students with a heavy schedule of extracurricular activities, too") virtual high schools. It also describes the variety of funding sources, from federal grants to state support, particularly focusing upon the importance of state support.

The author continues by describing how virtual high schools are using emerging technologies to make the learning experience much more personal for the student than the correspondence distance education programs of the past. She continues by discussing how virtual high schools shouldnot be seen as a saviour to the funding crisis in rural schools (see my entry on Online Learning: A Panacea for Rural Schools? for more on that portion of her article).

She concludes with a short discussion that starts to address the question of how will the virtual classroom change was schools look like in the future. In this discussion, she references a blended system, where students spend part of their day taking classes in the traditional classroom and other parts of their day in front of a computer taking classes online.

Some form of blended learning -- online and in the classroom -- will likely become the norm, as students take one or two online courses to supplement their traditional schedule. And even when they're enrolled in online courses, most students won't be entirely on their own. An inclass teacher will act as a coach, helping students select online courses and making sure they stay on track and manage their time well. The local coach or facilitator might assist students with real labs and virtual ones, join them on real field trips and their online counterparts, and help students find online sources and offline ones.
Not much of a revelation, given that this is how state-wide virtual high schools currently operate for the vast majority of students today.

At the end of the article, there is a short "sidebar" about "A New Way of Teaching," in which the author begins to address the second part of the question: "Will the virtual classroom redefine what it means to be a teacher?" It focuses upon the opinions and experiences of three virtual high school teachers and what is different about their roles as teachers compared to when they taught in the traditional classroom.

Overall, the author does make some interesting points about the nature of student interaction in the virtual classroom is vastly different from that of the traditional classroom, but the question still remains:
Will the virtual classroom redefine what it means to be a student?
I don't know the answer to this question. I suppose it would help if there was some description of what is currently means to be a student? Or what it means to be a student in the traditional classroom? Is that a question that can even be answered?!? Or maybe a better way to put it is that is this a question that has a single answer? Is what it means to be a student in a traditional classroom in a high school in a suburb of Atlanta the same as what it means to be a student in a traditional classroom in a high school located in rural Newfoundland? Are there characteristics that we can assign to "good" students in the traditional classroom that we can't assign to "good" students in the virtual classroom?

I suppose the reason that this article has caught my attention so much and has spawned two entries in a two week period from me is for two reasons. The first is because I feel that the author that the author is asking the wrong questions and trying to address the wrong issues. The second is because I get the sense that these questions that she is asking and the issues that she is addressing are the same issues that a lot of people are working towards.

What are the right questions and the right issues, you may ask? A fellow student in my doctoral program wanted to look at online learning. However, instead of looking at online learning from the perspective of the traditional classroom being the norm or the standard, he wanted to examine online learning from the idea of what it was the norm, if it was the standard. When we look at the traditional classroom, we look at pedagogy and the tools that teachers use. What if we were able to look at the virtual classroom as just another tool, but a rather unique tool? What pedagogies support the types of activities that we undertake in the name of teaching in a virtual classroom? What learning theories support the actions taken by students in the name of learning in a virtual classroom?

While I realize that there are many more questions in this entry than I normally pose, however, these are questions that I am grappling with as a teacher in and a researcher of virtual high schools.

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