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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Virtual Learning Is an Antidote to School Closure

The simulated shutdown of a Chicago school demonstrates that a swine flu outbreak or other emergency needn't infect the learning environment.
Mark Nichol
Editor / Writer

What would your school do if a swine flu outbreak or a similar calamity shut it down? For Chicago's VOISE Academy High School, the order of the day would be business as usual -- with a virtual twist -- as it demonstrated last week with a continuity-of-learning drill.

Ahead of time, Principal Todd Yarch told roughly 150 sophomores to stay home for the day. (An equal number of freshmen in the two-year-old school for grades nine and ten, which will add a grade level each year over the next couple of years, physically attended classes.) The tenth graders' teachers conducted classes remotely over the Internet, keeping in touch with video chats enabled by webcams or email.

The school provides each student with a laptop and a desktop, but not all of them have camera-equipped computers. (Though they normally use their laptops only at school, they brought them home for this special occasion.)

Kemi Jona, director of Northwestern University's Office of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education Partnerships and a member of the VOISE Academy's board of directors, says he gives the event "an A or an A+." It was, he adds, a compelling demonstration of exactly what Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement for the U.S. Department of Education, is championing -- the impact of digital technologies on getting kids engaged.

"We need to get these technologies into schools anyway," Jona says.

The event was inspired by Jona's discussions with Shelton, and by the agency's webinars about ensuring continuity of learning during extended student absence or school closures. (Download PDFs from the DOE with continuity-of-learning recommendations and general information about the H1N1 flu.)

How can your school apply distance-learning methods to a similar situation? At the VOISE Academy, a Chicago Public Schools campus that opened in fall 2008 with a mission to teach underprivileged children through digital technology, here's what educators did:

  • A reading class used a video chat in which the teacher read to students and carried out an online discussion. Students who lack webcams typed responses to the teacher's prompts.
  • In Spanish class, the teacher assigned students to use digital recorders to record phrases and statements in Spanish and email them. (This technique allows less confident kids to participate in class without risk of embarrassment.)
  • Another teacher used an interactive whiteboard to share classroom materials with students at home.
  • Many of the teenagers were logged in on wireless cell phone connections.

Jona says the virtual classes inspired more participation from kids who are normally quiet and reserved and more thoughtful responses from less literate students when they were given time to formulate ideas. "It also sparked a lot of creativity among the teachers," he adds.

Jona was pleasantly surprised that educators could continue to engage learners when they're not physically present. What's more, the exercise showed teachers that tools such as chat rooms and voice recorders can be effective even when students are with them in a bricks-and-mortar classroom.

"We can combine the benefit of a caring classroom teacher with the flexibility to use a digital classroom," he adds. "You don't have to be an analytical genius to see that something is working there."

Mark Nichol is a senior producer for Edutopia.

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