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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

No More Pencils, No More Books: A School of the Future Readies for Launch

A new high school in Chicago explores the possibilities of tech-centered learning.
Sara Bernard
Journalist
Credit: David Julian

Forget textbooks and handouts. Forget No. 2 pencils. And if you're looking for curricula for science or English class, go online. At the VOISE Academy High School, a new Chicago school opening in fall 2008, classwork is guided and shaped by 21st-century tech tools, providing an intriguing glimpse at what schools may look like in the future.

With the help of outside funding, VOISE (Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment) will bring the best online education offers to a real-life classroom. Each student will have a wireless-enabled laptop for use at school; those without a PC and Internet access at home will have that provided, too. With tech as the backbone, designers say, VOISE will make learning what it should be: student directed, project based, rigorous, and relevant.

Kemi Jona, an associate professor at Northwestern University and a member of the VOISE Academy High School design team, explains that online curriculum provides "a ticket to entry for students, getting them ready for the really exciting stuff: the projects, the collaborations, and the local connections that a teacher can bring." Curricula will be aligned with national and state education standards, but this "textbook" will hardly be "the sum total of what a teacher uses in his or her classroom," Jona says.

Proponents of online education call VOISE Academy High School's development a big step. "You can really get back into the art of teaching if you can take the best that technology has to offer," says Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and a member of The George Lucas Educational Foundation's National Advisory Council.

VOISE is part of the Chicago Public Schools's Renaissance 2010 initiative, designed to create 100 specialized public and charter schools that will keep kids engaged and wanting more. The academy, with 150 freshmen, will share a building with two other Renaissance 2010 schools on the former Austin High School campus on the city's West Side, adding a grade level and an additional 150 students per year until it reaches a maximum of 600.

Getting Personal

In addition to in-class teachers, students will have access to instructors from Apex Learning, the school's online content provider. Students can also take classes not offered at VOISE through Apex, Aventa Learning, or Illinois Virtual High School. They'll have "a full complement of courses, even though our in-class enrollments won't justify that many teachers," says Jona. A student who enters high school with a flair for Spanish, for example, or with a penchant for oceanography, can "get the benefits of a small school without any of the drawbacks." Jona notes that the tech infrastructure will bolster many of the school's core goals -- individualized instruction, small class sizes, and close relationships with teachers and peers.

In an effort to diminish the potentially dehumanizing aspect of a tech-reliant environment, the school plans to emphasize interpersonal relationships. That issue has come up during interviews with prospective teachers. "When I look at résumés, I'm envisioning teachers who have coached before, or taught special education, because they're used to working one on one with students and building relationships," says Todd Yarch, VOISE Academy High School's newly hired principal and a former teacher at several Chicago high schools. "I have a feeling that VOISE students are going to be able to advance so much faster than other students because they will have had their individual needs met."

Throughout the spring, VOISE designers have been up to their laptops in the typical challenges of opening a new school in a large urban district: community outreach, teacher recruitment, student enrollment, fundraising, and a bit of bureaucracy, to boot. The added layer of technology is challenging both from a financial viewpoint and a professional-development perspective. Potential partners for teacher training and financial backing include the Chicago Community Trust, Adobe, and NACOL, which may be able to assist with the development of specific resources for other schools to tap into when the VOISE model gets off the ground.

Uncertainties abound with any new school, but VOISE ups the ante, as there are few examples of best practices in an all-digital, in-person school environment. "There are very few hybrid, truly blended institutions out there," says Sandi Atols, manager of distance learning for Chicago Public Schools and originator of the VOISE Academy High School concept. The school is committed, therefore, to creating in-depth and ongoing professional development for VOISE educators, starting with three weeks in the summer, two preparation periods per teacher per day, and a whole-group professional-development session each week, in addition to periodic staff-development days the school district sets aside.

It's a tremendous cultural shift for all involved, but hopes are high: VOISE has already received roughly 200 student applications for the 150 available slots. The school's primary focus is college preparation -- and through technology-enabled, highly collaborative, and engaging work, as well as the differentiated emotional and academic support so vital to student success, designers are confident that the model will eventually gain traction nationwide.

"So many students come into high school so downtrodden," says Atols. "Our promise is that they will succeed -- with our help."

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

This is the first installment of a multipart story following the inaugural year of a new and innovative tech-centric high school in Chicago. We will file online reports throughout the 2008–09 academic year that describe the highs and lows of the VOISE Academy High School launch. Read part two.

Comments (4)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

J. Toomer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I fully support learning with technology and any effort to bring an engaged , but the slant in your "Prove It" section are comedy in its highest form. Of course there are better rates at the REN2010 schools than at district schools. I've taught in the best and in the worst district schools. At the worst schools, the AC doesn't work in summer. The heat doesn't work in winter. There is NO toilet paper. There are not enough computers. Some children who were dyslexic and could neither read nor write were on the honor roll! Imagine that?! What happened to those children from first grade on? Why didn't the district aggressively address those problems and intervene appropriately? Why did they play a blame game with "poor" teaching as THE culprit? I fed students, clothed them and bought school supplies to keep on hand for those children who were always unprepared.

Give me a break! I do praise these efforts and I am glad that SOME children are getting served, but there are many questions that remain unanswered. How and why could the district close its eyes to so many of these kinds of problems, while disenfranchsing mostly poor children from extremely difficult social circumstances?

The district has swept these issues under the rug and leapfrogged over thousands of children it sold out. Duncan should know better, but as a mouthpiece of Mayor Daley, he has towed the line that ignores those problems and instead blamed teachers for circumstances beyond their control. It's sometimes too much for a decent teacher to bear.

To be sure, I've seen some of the best and worst teachers in the CPS. No one with a brain cell would want those people in the classroom. I love teaching but struggling with so many issues and watching those terrible teachers remain in the classroom was too much. Trying to teach in underfunded, under-resourced schools took its toll. It cost too much for me to continue to provide items and address social issues over which not only I but the students had no control. I've sadly left the profession. However, I did bring many skills to the classroom and my expertise with technology was one of them. But how can you effectively teach without enough working computers? Or paper for printers?!

Creating new schools, new initiatives and bringing in new teachers is ONE solution, but comparing the district schools and CPS students that were dienfranchised to the successes of Rennaisance 2010/VOISE etc. is dishonest at its best and a manipulation of the public trust at its worst. Make the appropriate changes, celebrate the successes, but know the truth about who lost and who continues to lose as you tout those "gains".

Erin Ryan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Regarding the article No More Pencils, No More Books: A School of the Future Readies for Launch, a few questions came to mind. First, how will staff and students be trained to use the technology? Since those students without comptuers and Internet at home will be provided the tools, do you plan to train families as well? Technology is essential in this digital world we live in. I completely agree that is belongs in every learning environment, but does professional development exist? Have you considered the amount of time it will take to prepare students for such a learning environment? Technology in learning is incredibily important to our students' future, but I do question the forcefulness at which you are going about is implementation. Would a more gradual approach suffice?

Carmela Curatola Knowles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

No More Pencils, No More Books
I think we have some mixed messages out there related to student learning and student learning environments. First is the idea that a virtual classroom is ideal. Personally, I have enjoyed my post graduate classes more in an online environment than in a classroom. A piece of that is that when sitting in a classroom you are "captive" for that time period and if a student is asking a question that you've already worked through in your mind, you are mentally "on hold" while the professor reiterates for that student. Sometimes you come away with a deeper understanding; sometimes you come away with frustration. I think there are students who like to learn independently. They can quickly read a colleague's post and browse it for anything new. If not, they can move onto the next colleague's post to find new ideas and questions and thereby deepen their own understanding or ask other questions. However, I don't think that even a virtual school can be totally virtual. Person to person contact and communication is a necessary life skill and helps direct the student's focus. So, I think that every virtual class should start with a kickoff meeting. The best online courses I've had also ended with a live meeting where students presented their work to the class. These were the most meaningful learning experiences I've had to date.

On face value, the virtually-enhanced schools, as discussed in this article, appear to be doing a better job than their public school counterparts. When students are not distracted with old, poorly-maintained equipment, lack of resources, lack of adequate heating and ventilation, etc., they are free to think, as they should have been able to do from the start. Students in old public schools ,which need renovation but aren't getting it because they don't "meet expectations", are short-changed because they are expected to overcome an environment that does not support their learning needs.

From a technology viewpoint, absolutely I think that virtual learning should play a major role in how we construct students learning experiences. This will help the students to take what they have and move forward with the resouce. However, I don't think that closing a public school to rennovate it, reduce its student population by creating an application/lottery system, and then a year or two later saying that as a charter school it now is succeeding is either cost effective or fair to the students who were displaced. The comparison of learning outcomes is not based on a level playing field.

Education should not be labeled as a public school vs charter school vs virtual school - it should be an environment that fosters student learning and development of self-sufficiency. The biggest challenge facing the future of education, I believe, is that we need every stakeholder to take responsibility for their role in its current state and agree on a basic level of needs: physical plant, teacher-skill, administrative support, community support, and of course curricular goals. Then I think we can reevaluate what we have and create a plan to move forward without using catch phrases.

Peanut's picture

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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