Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 9 July 2007   Friday, July 20, 2007

ISSN 1748-3603

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Virtually there?
Building virtual schools for the future
by Bob Harrison

Susan Greenfield has explored the notion of virtual schools and universities because:
"[I]f the maturing of the Information Age is to revolutionise all aspects of the education system, from how we learn and what we learn, to what we learn with and when we learn, then it is no surprise that where we learn will be another change" (Greenfield, 2003).
In 'Tomorrow’s People' Greenfield offers a reflective yet futuristic look at the education system and asks: "What should we be teaching the next generation to equip them for citizenship in the mid 21st Century and beyond?". The chapter entitled 'Education; what we need to learn' is focussed on how, in physical form and function, the human brain reflects personal experiences. Greenfield suggests that our current education system is a product of the Industrial Age, far removed from the Information Age that we live in today.

Glen Russell (2001), a lecturer in Education at Monash University, predicts that there are three types of virtual school on the horizon:

  • Independent schools: where students access and interact with schools whenever they wish.
  • Synchronous schools: where scheduled on-line activities consisting of online dialogue and video-conferencing take place with other students and teachers.
  • Broadcast schools: where students access broadcasts and lectures on the web.

Russell (2001) also poses a more fundamental and profound question: "what is a school actually for?" Greenfield explores the same question in 'Tomorrow’s People' and claims that the development of face-to-face human relations is as important as learning facts. She suggests that the consequences of switching to virtual schooling could be that students will fail to develop an understanding of their emotions and the emotions of others.
Of course virtual schools already exist: lists numerous examples, and Stephen Heppel's NotSchool boasts completion and progression rates that are the envy of many 'real' schools and universities. The cooperative model demonstrated by Virtual High School has over 7000 students from 394 member schools following 237 courses. Australia has a Virtual School for the gifted while the UK's National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth has online courses and residential events at a range of Universities across the country.

So, what is next for virtual schools? I spent an afternoon in conversation with Ray Ravaglia, Deputy Director of the Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY), otherwise known as Stanford Virtual High. Ray explained how the programme - originally conceived in the 1960's for talented and gifted students - is now targeting learners of all abilities, and it is planned to become a 'completely virtual' high school for all subjects by 2008. "The aim is to empower the learner," explained Ray, "to develop a blend of learning to suit their individual learning style and needs".

The project is currently the subject of a pilot study with 14 schools. "I really expect that the pilot group will show significant improvement", said Ray. The curriculum is currently being expanded to include all the Sciences, Social Sciences, Economics, Humanities and Foreign languages (interestingly including Latin and Mandarin). Ray is unapologetic about the high academic content, and stresses the importance Stanford is placing on student support, counselling and guidance to blend with the "real time virtual classroom with videoconferencing and shared whiteboard".

In addition to provision of 'on-line socialising' opportunities, Stanford provides a summer school on the Palo Alto campus where philosophy, democracy and truth will form part of the curriculum. "We wanted a curriculum for the summer school where all the learners would be starting from a similar baseline," said Ray. The target enrolment of 300 will be "need blind" thanks to the endowment support available at Stanford. Ray thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg however: he passionately believes that for $50 per child Stanford could provide accelerated learning for all the children in the State of California. Ray sees the major obstacles to this dream as bandwidth for media rich content, access to computers and School Superintendents' scepticism. With Ray's passion and Stanford's track record in innovation, technology and learning it may not be too long before the obstacles are overcome.
The UK government has a multi-billion pound project 'Building Schools for the Future' although perhaps we should be reconsidering the balance of our investment in bricks and glass and thinking about the notion of Building Virtual Schools for the future?

Bob Harrison

Greenfield S (2003) Tomorrow’s People: How 21st Century Technology Is Changing the Way We Think and Feel. London: Allen Lane
Russell G (2001) Is Virtual Schooling a Virtual Reality? From Now On, The Educational Journal 10, 6 [Online]. Available from [Accessed 10/7/07]

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