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Virtual Classes For Kids

Pennsylvania to fund online charter school for grades K-12
One of Albert Einstein's less-quoted aphorisms is, "It's become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity." But E-learning initiatives in public schools challenge that assertion, including a new effort under way for grades K-12.

Through a three-way partnership with startup content provider Elrn Inc., infrastructure company Vobix Corp., and the state of Pennsylvania, Einstein Academy, an online public charter school, will open Sept. 11.

The idea to start an online public school originated four years ago with Mimi Rothschild, an educational book author and mother of seven. One of her children spent much of his first two years in an intensive-care unit, giving her a 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.

Einstein Academy will be open to any Pennsylvania student, but it's drawing strong interest from kids who can't go to or aren't likely to succeed in a conventional classroom: the disabled, children in juvenile detention, pregnant teens, and children in long-term hospitalization.

Because it's a public school, there's no tuition. All books, computer hardware and software, and telephone connections are supplied by the state through routine school funding.

K-12 OnlineTotal revenue for K-12 educational services, including E-learning infrastructure, content, and E-commerce products for books and transportation, is projected to reach $6.9 billion by 2003, according to a Merrill Lynch research report.

Vobix's E-learning platform, which provides the infrastructure for the school, was released earlier this month. It uses Microsoft's .Net platform and a managed-services model called managed campus, which lets teachers build, manage, and update courses. The platform is compatible with Windows-based PCs and Macintosh computers. The content comes from curricula developed by Elrn, which Rothschild helped found.

Howie Mandel, Einstein Academy's chief technology officer, calls the approach "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." In this case, "closer" involved several years of developing a back-end infrastructure that accommodates more individualized teaching than training in a business environment. Teachers can "pop in" to students' computers and ask how they're doing or simply monitor progress.

Each class involves 20 to 40 students. So far, 2,000 are enrolled, and as classes fill up, the school will add teachers. Next year, the school plans to open in New York, New Jersey, and Georgia.

Despite its good intentions, some academic experts are concerned about virtual schooling's effect on children's social development, says Scott Willson, VP of Merrill Lynch's educational services and knowledge enterprises. "It's a novel idea," he says, but "children need social interaction with each other to develop fully--and they can't get that over the Web."

--with Elisabeth Goodridge

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