Considering the Impact of Technology
Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 23:01
Whenever I hear the term “virtual education,” I immediately think back to my 11th grade physics teacher, who attempted to have us complete online module lessons while she was absent one day. These included videos of her explaining certain physics concepts as well as online quizzes. Needless to say, her attempts were unsuccessful. Looking back, I’m not sure if the lack of success was due to the fact that she mistakenly opted not to have a substitute teacher and instead trust 25 16-year-olds to sit in class alone and focus on online lessons, or if it failed simply because virtual learning does not work… for anyone.
I have since been a firm believer that, if there is the option to have the teacher in front of the classroom or on a computer screen, educators should always opt for the former. It is more conducive to active learning and engages the students more than a computer screen can. However, never once did I think about virtual education with regards to students who cannot easily attend school because of a disability or students prone to violence.
On Jan. 3, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation that establishes guidelines for the approval and operation of public schools in which teachers provide all or most instruction online for students who cannot be present in a school building for reasons such as these.
Under this new law, a single school district, a group of two or more districts, an education collaborative, an institution of higher education, a nonprofit, two or more certified teachers, or parents would be eligible to submit a proposal to the state to develop a virtual school. Preference will be given to applications that focus on serving students with physical challenges, students who have been expelled or dropped out of school, and those who are pregnant or already parents. Districts would be responsible for paying a per-pupil fee for students attending a virtual school not operated by its home district.
“Anything we can do to keep kids in school, I think, is beneficial,” said Superintendent John E. O’Connor of Tewksbury. “And if this can help some students maintain their academic focus, I’m all in favor of it. We just don’t have the resources, financial and manpower, to establish a school from scratch.”
Currently, Massachusetts has one virtual school that was founded in 2010: The Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield. Educators in favor of this legislation hope that, with more virtual schools, Massachusetts will no longer be falling behind other states that have already harnessed technology’s potential to benefit its students.
At this point, the legislation would not allow for more than 10 virtual schools to operate at one time. Additionally, no more than two percent of students statewide can be enrolled full time in virtual schools.
Educators are a bit wary about virtual schools and are not rushing into this venture too fast. Superintendent Frederick Foresteire of Everett added that school departments want to hear more about the advantages and disadvantages of virtual schooling before definitively deciding “how much we want to get into it.”
Paul Dakin, the school superintendent in Revere, voiced some concerns about virtual schools that echo some concerns that I immediately think of when hearing about online classrooms regarding active learning.
“A lot of what we do in the schools not only imparts the content of knowledge, but there are elements of democracy where kids learn how to work out differences and debate and talk and be contributing members of a group,” said Dakin. “Where someone just works in isolation online, that can lead, in my own opinion, to a society that doesn’t look out for one another.”
The debate is not a black and white one. The question is whether these risks are worth taking to maintain some semblance of an education for students who may not otherwise be able to attend school at all.