In America's best high schools, where nearly every graduate goes on to college and many attend elite universities, students can choose from an array of honors and advanced-placement courses that go well beyond the traditional curriculum. But even big schools sometimes have trouble filling the classes with qualified students, and many small schools have a hopeless time trying to provide advanced courses.
For some 500 students in the 11th and 12th grades, technology has come to the rescue this year. The students and their teachers are scattered around the country and, unlike participants in TV-based distance learning, they never see each other, even on video. The courses, ranging from advanced-placement English to a bioethics seminar, are conducted entirely in written exchanges over the World Wide Web.
COOPERATIVE EFFORT. This experimental virtual high school (VHS) is run by the nonprofit Concord Consortium (vhs.concord.org) under an Education Dept. technology-challenge grant. The VHS operates as a cooperative. Each of the 27 schools participating in the program supplies curriculum and a teacher for one or more courses, plus a site coordinator to handle the administrative details.
For each course it offers, a school can enroll up to 20 of its own students in the VHS offerings. Concord Consortium provides teacher training, technical support, software, and the central Web servers.
Teachers prepare their "lectures" and post assignments and study materials using a Lotus Development Corp. program called LearningSpace, a customized version of the Notes software employed by business to help people work in groups. A Lotus Domino server automatically posts the teachers' entries to a Web site, and students use a browser to read the course material and write and submit their assignments. LearningSpace also lets students share in written discussions with each other or private communications with the teacher, though it doesn't yet provide for real-time "chat."
Concord Consortium allowed me to look in on some courses, including AP English, geometry, and creative writing. I found that the course material was often far more imaginative than is typical in high schools, and often more demanding than even many normal honors courses. For instance, English teacher Marsha West of Forks High School on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula teaches an unusual AP course with a strong emphasis on the Bible and classical literature.
Some characteristics of the online classes are predictable, some surprising. "The one thing I miss is the livelier discussions in the ordinary classroom," says West. Online discussion groups lack "the intuitive flashes that happen from faster interaction." But on the plus side, the 26-year classroom veteran says the online course has forced her to be more organized and more disciplined about sticking to a schedule. "I think it's a better course than I had taught before."
Math presents particular problems. Louine Teague of Lumberton (N.C.) Senior High School, who teaches an honors geometry course, worries that "it is difficult to see when a student is beginning to lose interest or have difficulty with his work." In addition, she has to take it on faith that the students have successfully used special paper to fold the geometric constructions that are the heart of her class. But, participating in the VHS allows Lumberton High, which, like many in the program, is in a relatively poor community, to offer a much richer curriculum than it could do on its own. Those offerings, says Teague, "far outweigh the drawbacks" of online teaching.
STARTUP GLITCHES. Not surprisingly, VHS has had to get over a number of bumps during its first semester. The original Web servers were inadequate, and students and teachers suffered through frustrating delays and crashes. Digital Equipment Corp. saved the day by donating a $62,000 AlphaServer 4100. There were also administrative glitches in getting all the students scheduled into the right courses.
The winter semester should go more smoothly, and 15 other teachers are being trained to conduct courses next fall. Bruce Droste, who directs the program for Concord Consortium, is hoping that by the time the $7.4 million federal grant runs out in four years, the program will have attracted enough school and corporate support to be self-sustaining.
Participants in the program concur that this style of distance learning, which requires highly motivated students and creative teachers, isn't for everyone. The acid test will come next spring, when the first batch of cyber students take their finals. For those students, this could well be a case where technology brings major benefits.