Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Reflections on Virtual Schools

So what did I pull away from the Virtual Leadership Conference besides five pages of notes on all aspects of creating an online school? It’s hard to say, but I am thankful that the conference was not what I expected. Going in, I thought I was going to be sold a product, and I was not, by any means. The staff at the Florida Virtual School were as transparent (in the good, School 2.0 kind of way) as they could be. Most of what we learned was couched in “this is what we do currently and we like it, but these are all of the mistakes we made….” and never did I feel like I was being shown the ONLY way to create a virtual school.

It’s exciting to think that because of this, I have the opportunity to create a school, albeit an offshoot of an existing school, but one that will only resemble a traditional school in course title; content delivery, student teacher interaction, assessment, evaluation, and many other facets will be incredibly different. That has me racing to get the wheels moving. And move they must. For a project like this to become a reality, many things have to be put into place, evaluated, and then re-shaped so they fit.

I don’t know if it was coincidence or kismet, but on the plane back while searching for a cure for nausea brought on by reading, I watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about creativity and education. Creativity needs cultivation.

(on a side note, during Robinson’s talk, I made several promises to my children to push and pull on what they are good at, and to never breed fear of failure. Robinson’s points about adults being so afraid to fail in the face of their peers crystallizes why some companies, like Google and others, breed a culture of success—their employees are encouraged to experiment and play without fear of failure)

At this point in my career, I am thankful I have discovered “play,” again, and that I am dependent on creativity to make my projects work. Problems, solutions, failures and successes are all part of most every day that I spend; days that don’t include those aspects are indeed rare. This project just adds to that mix.

Surprisingly, the most repeated point throughout the conference was the immense importance placed on guidance counselors—whether they be those of the virtual school or the public school. Not that I am selling the role of counselors short by any means, but when I came to this conference, the last thing I expected to talk about was guidance counselors. But it makes sense now: overachieving students will gravitate to virtual schools for the opportunity to extend their learning beyond what is offered during a normal school day, but those students who might truly benefit from self-paced learning might not find the virtual school by themselves. That’s where an astute counselor comes in and places the student in a virtual school, where they might meet with success learning at a pace that is suitable to them. When we talk of stakeholders in a school community, rarely do we bring counselors into the fold. This must change if the virtual school is going to be successful, because, regardless of your socioeconomic level, there are not enough overachievers to make a virtual school viable within one district.

The pacing of virtual schools, especially the FLVS model, really astounded me as well. They use a policy of open-enrollment, whereby at any point during the year a student could enroll in the course. Pacing is determined by the student upon enrollment and they must submit a summary statement explaining their choice of pace to the instructor as soon as they begin the first lesson, or module of the class. What this means for the teacher, with students beginning at various times, is that there are multiple levels of asynchronous learning going on at once, and teaching occurs according to student need, not teacher decision. That amazed me, and allowed me to start linking this model into my thoughts on LMS and personal learning environments. In PLE’s there can be room for teacher-created content and coursework.

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