The Local Internet School
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Yale professor David Gelernter in the Wall Street Journal, lengthy but important:
A local Internet school sounds like a contradiction in terms: the Internet lets you discard geography and forget “local.” But the idea is simple. A one-classroom school, with 20 or so children of all ages between 6th and 12th grade, each sitting at a computer and wearing headsets. They all come from nearby. A one-room Internet school might serve a few blocks in a suburb, or a single urban apartment building.
In front sits any reliable adult whom the neighbors vouch for—often, no doubt, some student’s father or mother, taking his turn. He leads the Pledge of Allegiance, announces regular short recesses to clear everyone’s head, proclaims lunchtime. He hands out batteries and Band-Aids and sends sick children home or to a doctor. He reloads the printers and futzes with malfunctioning scanners, no doubt making any problem worse. But these machines are cheap, and each classroom can deploy several.
Each child does a whole curriculum’s worth of learning online, at the computer. Most of the time he follows canned courses on-screen. But for an hour every day, he deals directly, one-to-one over phone or videophone with a tutor. Ideally there’s a teaching assistant on an open phone line throughout the day, each assistant dealing with a few dozen students. In early years, parents will need to help here too. And each child needs a mentor who advises parents on courses and keeps track of the student’s progress. The wealthy conservative foundation, think tank or consortium that spends liberally to get this idea off the ground will probably provide mentors, in early years, from its own staff.
The online courses—some exist already but not enough—are produced by teaching maestros. As these new schools gather momentum, they will make use, as tutors or assistants, of the huge number of people who are willing and able to help children in some topic for a few hours a week but can’t or won’t teach full time: college and graduate students and retirees, lawyers, accountants, housewives, professors.
Parents must be far more involved in children’s educations than most are today. They must choose—with online help and advice from mentors and friends—a set of courses for each child every year. They must talk to their children about school every day, to make sure things are moving forward. They might need to take turns supervising the class. A few will have taken the hugely time-consuming step of organizing the school to begin with.
Obviously these schools aren’t for everyone. But for many thousands of students, they are likely to work well—and better every year, as the pool of courseware, tutors and assistants grows.
And that vision isn’t the most troubling part. Read the comments.
I’ll say it again: The key question we need to be asking AND answering is “What value do schools have in a world where technology can deliver the traditional curriculum and raise standardized test scores “better” than teachers can?” Even if that last part is just perception.
If we can’t answer that question compellingly, we’re toast.