Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brick, Mortar and Megabytes: Uniting Brick and Mortar with Virtual Schools

By Mark Burke

In 1993 the school where I taught was at the doorstep of a revolution.  The school's first WAN had been installed along with Internet access and district-wide email.  School's across the US were eagerly adopting the technology identified as a sure fire way to raise educational quality.  At my school, those of us who adopted the value of the technology were balancing our real jobs with other duties to help the school setup networks and computer labs, train teachers and develop new strategic plans to include technology. 

For the next few years, schools reviewed and integrated countless computer applications all with a focus on helping students learn. Document publishing software, graphic art applications, databases, math tutoring games, and yes, music software were being purchased and installed on thousands of school computers.  In addition to software, there were few schools not teaching students how to use the web for "research."  Schools had become a strong, centralized resource for technology and thus, even stronger educational entities.

By 1998 and 1999, a transition had begun.  School networks had become increasing faster and the web had gotten a foot hold in many homes.  Schools began connecting services typically only available by visiting the school with families in their homes.  A new wave had begun where school, home and community became part of the learning circle made possible through web tools and communication.

Around that same time, what would seem like a threat to our strong public and private brick and mortar schools came out of nowhere.  Enter the Virtual Schools.  As a technology enabler for my school, I grew increasingly interested in jumping on board the fast moving Educational Technology revolution. I was not alone.  Those who witnessed the true instructional benefits or technology in our schools moved full steam ahead to create even more powerful technology based education.  With schools now able to reach out to the community more easily, it made sense to develop a way to not just communicate, but educate using the same distributive methods.  Virtual Schools allowed education to take advantage of the ease of distribution the web had to offer.  What ensued appeared by many to be a large threat to the future of brick and mortar schools.  Virtual Schools became a main source of education for many K-12 students. Students were now staying home and receiving their education via the web. Still even more students were remaining in their brick and mortar school and taking classes online as a supplement. The threat seemed to be growing.  

Like many professionals who played a role in creating virtual schools, I have never thought of them as threats to other school systems.  Virtual Schools developed because great schools rolled out technology solutions to long held challenges.  My background in public school teaching helped lead me to develop virtual schools.  Online courses open new doors for many students who would otherwise not have options. They do so because they were developed, like all good educational technology to solve problems.   

I had a brilliant trumpet teacher(Dr. Mike Galloway, Mansfield University) in college who used to say "I am a musician who just happens to play trumpet."  His statement was simple yet profound.  He instilled in me that being a musician was my goal and that my instrument was merely the vehicle of my art.  When I speak to other educators, I use an adapted version of that same philosophy.  I tell others "we are educators who just happen to teacher at a xxxx", filling in the blank with public school, private school, private studio, community college, state university or virtual school.  This mindset establishes the school as a vehicle for delivering education, not the center of our occupation. 

As an educator, I want to use ALL tools available to me.  I encourage others to think the same.  I had the great pleasure of presenting viaAcademies to a band director at a brick and mortar school recently.  His feedback was priceless.  He shared what I know is an ongoing struggle.  He has several students in a lesson group, all at different levels.  He mentioned how the first few lessons of the year are fabulous with all kids at about the same level.  After a few weeks though, the frustration sets in.  He is tired of feeling that frustration and tired of seeing kids being frustrated.  He is a passionate educator looking for solutions no matter where they come from.  His approach is as I mentioned above.  He is a educator who just happens to teach at a public school and wants the help of an online school for his students.  His choice does anything but lower his credibility as a public school teacher.  It does so by significantly raising his position as an educator, first and foremost.  He sees his job clearly, help kids be successful.  At the end of the demonstration, he said "I will make the case for this and I will be successful because it is simple, effective and will help kids."  I am proud to say he was talking about viaAcademies and our courses.

I say it is time to rid ourselves of the controversy over the relationship between brick and mortar and virtual schools. I like the phrase, Brick, Mortar and Megabytes.  I know there are many who want to see the separation maintained and find no value in partnering the two.  My challenge to all is to think of yourselves first as educators, willing to use whatever tool needed to educate students.  Virtual School courses are certainly incredibly powerful tools in our arsenal. I'm not willing to be viewed as someone who doesn't take every path possible to help students.  By pushing virtual schools out of the equation as solutions for brick and mortar challenges, isn't that what is happening?

What do you think?  Should brick and mortar school use virtual school solutions?

1 comment:

  1. Form our own Dr. Ciabattari on our Facebook page. He commented about creating quality interactions between peers and teachers.

    Brick and mortar schools that use online courses certainly have the best of both worlds available to them. Students can maintain their face to face interactions with fellow students and teachers while adding online interactions.

    With the tools available in online courses, students can continue their conversations with peers and teachers through discussion topics, secure message systems, threaded assignment submission feedback and virtual whiteboard technologies.

    It's also important for those of us who are X generation or older, (40+) to recognize how students today effectively communicate. They certainly rely on a combination of live and virtual communication to a degree that many of us find hard to fathom.

    While those of us in the older generation may find relying on virtual communications as part of our education efforts a limiting factor, students view it as a bonus.

    I think this points to one really powerful values of integrating virtual learning into brick and mortar schools.