What will be the impact of virtual schools and technology on brick and mortar schools?

By Daily News • Last Updated 10:58 pm on Friday, September 20, 2013

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

This column and the next few are by far the most challenging I have undertaken since the Daily News offered me the opportunity to write weekly about education. The use of technology to help educate our young people is intriguing, controversial, confusing and difficult to explain. I am well aware of that, but I am determined to try to help parents and the public better understand this complicated issue.

Why am I choosing to discuss this now? Because there is no better time. We must recognize that schools have changed and will continue to change. Technology is here to stay.

I am fond of quoting author Daniel Pink who said in his book, A Whole New Mind, “This new age fairly glitters with opportunity, but it is as unkind to the slow of foot as it is to the rigid of mind.”

If you are of my generation and have not visited a school in awhile, you would find very little similarity to the schools you attended. Schools are evolving from teacher centered to student centered. One of the great benefits of technology is that it offers the possibility of tailoring teaching to the specific needs of students. There are studies that show that students can be more engaged by using technology. However, one important quote I found says, “If a classroom plan is strategized and implemented appropriately, the teacher is more valuable than ever. “

The topic I want to address is Virtual Schools. The challenge is that there is no single definition of a virtual school. There are numerous interpretations of what that means and how it will impact traditional schools.

It is clear that technology must be thoughtfully and carefully integrated into the learning environment. Technology is ever changing and will require that teachers, students and, yes, parents continually adapt.

I believe that future changes will involve the structure of the school day and year as well as the classroom. In the past we were concerned with purchasing computers and perhaps allowing time during the school day for students to learn and use them. Today most students have a variety of devices and they use them independently from an early age.

Among the changes that are on the horizon in brick and mortar schools is scheduling. I believe we will see less structure. Students, particularly at the secondary level, may study more independently at home and attend school less frequently for mentoring or assessments.

I believe we will see the school day lengthened. It will not be that students will be in school longer, but they may be scheduled for evening classes rather than only during a single block of time during the day. Some might only attend one or two days a week. Much will depend on the needs of the student. Technology allows for much more flexible schedules and locations. That means more possibilities for students, more options for locations and the ability to reach more students.

Those are the positive side of the technology revolution. But as with most changes, there are also some down sides, or at least concerns that will need to be addressed. We must plan carefully and not just adopt every new idea. We need to consider the maturity of students when we choose programs to offer them and ensure that the lack of technology does not exclude some students from participating. And, of course, we must address the cost of maintaining, upgrading, repairing and replacing hardware as needed.

Finally, and most important, we must be certain that we stay focused on the most important goal which is student learning. We must equip our young people to be able participate in an ever changing world. Goals that focus on the interests of adults including creating money making ventures at the expense of quality teaching and learning relationships are not acceptable.

Ready or not the future is upon us. Next week I will try to describe and explain some of the options that are already available and in use.

Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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