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
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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.

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jesse Gauthier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is an excellent article. I enjoyed reading it and I aspire to be able to conduct class from outside the classroom as well.
Being able to communicate regardless of location is crucial for the jobs of tomorrow. If this article was about a business meeting, I doubt it would even been published. The fact that businesses are leaving the education system behind should push schools to adopt the tools used in the average conference room and for corporations to grant schools with those tools. That way our students will truly be prepared for careers that don't even exist today.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is my understanding that VOISE uses a number of products to support these efforts including Apex learning and School Town ( Students today do benefit from blended learning opportunities and the is a great example for other schools to follow.

Andrew Pass's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If virtual learning is going to succeed then there will have to be some very high quality digital curriculum resources. Students will not be able to use technology for the sake of using technology. Instead they will have to use technology in order to learn important content matter. Obviously this is an evolving process.

Andrew Pass

Jan H.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a wonderful idea - laptops and desktops for every student!

However, the realization of this goal is in the far future for those of us who work in the poorest communities in our country. At my school we have a lab - 30 workstations - and the students get to visit the lab for 45 minutes every two weeks. The only reason we have that is due to a grant won a few years ago by the third grade teachers.

There is little hope of finding money to provide computers for each child when our state has recently decided to postpone adoption of new language arts texts in order to save the purchase costs.

We might get a grant for a one time purchase, but what happens when those computers need repair or replacement?

Michael Taylor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many schools throughout the world, by necessity, have continuity plans. Through softwares such as Moodle, Sharepoint and Blackboard they continue to hold authentic lessons- remotely. The hurdle is that administrators, teachers and students need to align expectations, planning and preparation for what will become more common practice (not because of things like H1N1 but becasue it allows for more student centred learning).

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