Building the VIRTUAL Classrom

By Patterson, Jennifer C. | Curriculum Administrator, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Building the VIRTUAL Classrom

Patterson, Jennifer C., Curriculum Administrator

Education has always taken place inside and outside the classroom. Now, the Internet and portable computers are blurring whatever line was left.

It brings American education to the children of ambassadors and missionaries, helps students with erratic schedules or special needs to earn their diplomas, and allows students to work individually toward Advanced Placement examinations and college credit. As it gains popularity, distance learning is changing the direction of education; the only question is, where is it headed next?

Weighing the Pros and Cons

The virtual classroom can mean different things to different people. In some contexts, it is an entirely Internet-based distance delivery method that allows students to earn a diploma without setting foot in a traditional classroom. In others, it is a supplement, a single course that enriches a student's traditional program. Whatever forms it has taken before, it is clear now that the growing influence of Internet technologies is pushing the virtual classroom permanently into cyberspace.

As distance education becomes more popular, the pros and cons are making themselves known. And, as they do, it becomes clear that virtual classrooms will change the way that we think about education.

Dan Barron, a professor of Library and Information Sciences at the University of South Carolina, is coordinating the evaluation of the state's K-12 distance education programs. Barron thinks the rise of virtual education will encourage educators to "think of schools as learning instead of just attending."

Virtual education will be "a catalyst for how we approach education generally," Barron says, explaining that these classes encourage students to "become engaged in a learning community" that doesn't end when the bell rings. These classes also make it easier to accommodate students with different learning styles, which Barron suggests will have "a significant impact on middle achievers." For example, virtual courses can be equally appealing to both the student who craves lots of one-on-one attention and the quiet student who prefers to work independently, allowing a middle achiever to accommodate his or her own learning style.

Additionally, virtual education allows students to have access to courses they would not otherwise be able to take, such as specialized courses for which there is a low demand. Barron describes these positive aspects as the three advantages of virtual classrooms: "convenience, flexibility and access to low-incidence courses."

In spite of the advantages, virtual education does have its pitfalls, many of which are the reverse of its strengths. For example, whereas virtual courses may accommodate students who prefer to work independently, the isolation doesn't work well for everyone. "The social experience has an important part to play in education," says Barron. This tendency of virtual education to "cubicleize" a student is a problem that is also being confronted by the swelling ranks of homeschoolers.

For virtual schooling to be effective, students and teachers must also learn new skills. This can be a daunting task. "We have a bunch of people who suffer from FUD--fear, uncertainty and doubt," Barron says.

Barron predicts these cultural barriers will be more difficult to overcome than the often cited one--funding. "Tradition and lack of imagination" are the problems, he says. While acquiring funds is difficult, "you can get money for what you really want."

However, not everyone is in agreement about the biggest barriers facing virtual education. Bruce Droste, director of Concord Consortium's Virtual High School, says "the biggest barrier is the digital divide." This view is supported by testimony that Julie Young, principal of virtual Florida High School, made in front of the Web-based Education Commission this June. Young cited statistics that a high-income, urban household is 20 times more likely to have Internet access than a low-income, rural household, and that a low-income white family is three times more likely to have Internet access than a low-income African-American family. …

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