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Online Charter School Ready To Open

Content provider Elrn, infrastructure company Vobix, and the state of Pennsylvania make the nation's first online public charter school possible.
Albert Einstein said, "It's become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity." But every week new technologies and new uses for existing technologies challenge that assertion. E-learning, traditionally associated with corporate training, IT certification, and college-level distance learning, has been making its way into public schools for some time now--but always at a price.

Through a partnership with content provider Elrn Inc. of Philadelphia, infrastructure company Vobix Corp. of Louisville, Ky., and the state of Pennsylvania, the nation's first online public charter school, Einstein Academy, will open Sept. 11. K-12 E-learning is a fertile market: Merrill Lynch projects the market to reach $7 billion by 2003.

The idea to start an online public school originated with Mimi Rothschild, author of educational books and mother of seven. One of her children, Riley, spent much of his first two years in the intensive care unit, giving her and her husband an inside view of long-term pediatric care that changed the course of her career. "We saw a world of needs for children to have continuity in education while they're sick--especially children who are living in isolation units," she says.

While the school is open to any Pennsylvania student, it's drawing strong interest from kids who can't go to, or aren't likely to succeed in, a traditional classroom: disabled children, children in juvenile detention, pregnant teens, and children in long-term hospitalization. It's a public school so there is no tuition. And all books, computer hardware and software, and telephone connections are supplied by state funds.

Vobix's new E-learning platform, which provides the infrastructure for the school, uses the Microsoft .Net platform and a managed services model called managed campus, which lets teachers build, manage, and update their own courses, and allows students to collaborate by using Web-surfing skills that many have already developed on their own. The content comes from curriculum developed by Elrn Inc., which Rothschild helped found.

Howie Mandel, the school's chief technology officer, calls it "second-generation" E-learning. "The ideal technology is technology you don't see," he says. "It hasn't happened yet, but we're getting closer." It's more sophisticated than a chat window: Teachers know where the kids are and can pop up a window to monitor how individual students are doing." Word problems can even be tailored dynamically through the system to be more interesting to individual students, says Mandel.

Schools are expected to open in New York, New Jersey, and Georgia next year. About 2,000 students are enrolled in classes now, and Pennsylvania's Einstein Academy expects to reach 15,000 students by 2005.