As the father of virtual school students, I see both the promise and the challenges of online education.
The self-paced nature of the instruction is important, but not without limits. Because the school year calendar still must command some respect, my middle schoolers have been up past midnight more times than I care to count re-doing assignments that they didn't get right the first time and trying to catch up with the pace of their courses. Then again, there are days they get to sleep late, and even occasions where they get to pay an unscheduled visit to Disney World after getting ahead in their classes.
At the moment, we're pretty determined to stick with the virtual school program through the twins' middle school years and reevaluate as high school approaches. When people ask whether we're depriving our children of the socialization aspect of schooling, my wife confidently asserts that most of the social interaction in school is negative, thinking of all the bullying, vulgarity and violence. I will admit to wondering if learning to cope with those things isn't in itself a valuable or at least necessary experience they're missing out on, leaving them outside the mainstream of their peers. Yet there are clearly some middle school horror stories we could live without. So we pack their schedules with extracurricular activities assumed to be more positive, such as scouting, church choir and swim team, and complain about how much time we're spending shuttling them between events.
Virtual school is revolutionary, but it's hard to see it as the revolution our public schools really need. For a family like mine, with a work-at-home mom and dad, sure, but not everyone can do that or would want to. Ultimately, the best elements of online education will need to make their way into our regular neighborhood schools and be used, judiciously, where they make the most sense.
When I sat down with BVS principal Christopher McGuire recently, following a school advisory committee meeting, he readily agreed that virtual school is not the future. But it is part of the future and a place to practice the use of technologies that will find their way into the classroom of the future. In fact, it's already starting to happen. Another part of the operation he oversees, the Broward Education Communications Network (BECON) TV program, produces online and video educational materials for classroom use as well as remote education.
McGuire is the one who advised me to read Disrupting Class, the book on innovation in education by Clayton Christensen. That book focuses on the K-12 grades, although he has also written about how the same trends will play in higher education. Christensen is best known for The Innovator's Dilemma, which describes a pattern in which innovators in one generation of technology fail to see the potential of the next generation -- which tends to sneak into the low end of the market as an alternative too marginal to take seriously as a threat. In this way, for example, Digital Equipment Corp. for a long time dismissed the potential of PCs that were mere toys compared to its minicomputers and offered too little profit compared with the established technology. PCs started out as an alternative to nothing -- computers for people who otherwise would not have convenient access to any computing power at all -- then steadily gained capabilities to become a major market force.
In the same way, he predicts that innovation in education technology will appear first at the fringes -- as it is today in virtual K12 education or massive open online courses (MOOCs) in higher education -- and will be dismissed by the mainstream while it is going through its growing pains. Yet ultimately some permutation of the technologies and techniques incubating on the margins will overtake and become the mainstream. Because institutions generally don't "disrupt themselves," those who want to ride the wave of disruptive innovation and remain relevant need to spawn an independent division motivated to pursue new ideas rather than preserve the status quo, according to this theory.
When the Florida Virtual School was established by former Gov. Jeb Bush and a Republican-led legislature, its leaders were allowed to write their own ticket, insulating the venture from institutional pressures such as the influence of the teachers' union. The Broward County schools probably never would have taken this leap into the future on its own, but with FLVS proving the worth of the model, BVS was created to show that it could work as well or better within the county school system and with union teachers. This is an encouraging trajectory and gives me hope that every child in the county will have access to the best elements of this program someday soon.
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