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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

’ Children learn every bit as well at home as in a public school building.’

Frederick G. Knirk

USC School of Education

It is a classroom without walls. There is no teacher in sight. Students set their own hours and, in most subjects, final exams are nonexistent.

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Laurel Springs School in Ojai calls it Learn OnLine, and some education experts say it is a model for how millions of schoolchildren across the nation could be learning right now--if schools had the money and inclination to make it happen.

In the virtual classroom being pioneered in Ventura County by Laurel Springs, a private home-schooling center, all instruction takes place on a computer in the student’s home.

Weekly lessons are e-mailed from teacher to student, who returns completed assignments via cyberspace. There are no textbooks, no lockers, no gnawed-up No. 4 pencils.

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In their place is a brave new world of clicking mice, CD-ROMS and Internet explorations of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

“Children learn every bit as well at home as in a public school building, I’m convinced,” said Frederick G. Knirk, professor of curriculum and teaching at the USC School of Education.

“If the schools would just become a little more flexible, we would see a lot more of these innovations in education technology.”

But even if public schools had money to begin creating home-to-school computer linkups--not likely any time soon in California--some teachers and sociologists question whether a purely online education is a laudable goal.

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Students lose out on valuable socialization that prepares them for the real world, teachers and others say. And only those pupils who are highly motivated or who have special needs will likely be the best candidates for cyber-instruction, they say.

There will always be some children who need the structure and constant supervision of the teacher in the classroom, learning experts say.

Still, Learn OnLine appears to be a welcome option for several of the 580 first- through 12th-grade students enrolled at Laurel Springs, said Marilyn Mosley, the school’s director.

The home-schooling network has been offering lesson plans that can be followed at home for the past 19 years, with most of its students living in California, Mosley said.

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But it wasn’t until this fall that Laurel Springs began offering online instruction. Although Mosley said Learn OnLine is the first virtual classroom in Ventura County, similar programs have been logging on across the United States in the past year or two.

Other cyber-schools include Clonlara, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., Pinewood School in Colorado and Eagle Academy in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said John Gavlik, Learn OnLine’s creator. All of the schools also run traditional home-school programs, where academic materials are hand-delivered or mailed to students, he said.

In addition, Prodigy maintains a home-schooling page on the World Wide Web that guides parents and students to ready-made lesson plans and educational resources, Gavlik said.

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Computer education flourished in the home-school community first because it was not a great leap, Mosley said.

Students were already being educated at home, she said. Receiving assignments via computer just made the system more convenient. It also solved another home-school problem, she said: providing students with a rich array of research materials.

“We were getting complaints that students couldn’t get work done because public libraries are closed so often,” Mosley said. “So we said wouldn’t it be great if we could just send them to the Internet for information?”

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Working with Gavlik, an Oxnard computer programmer, Mosley devised Learn OnLine and began offering it to 9th-, 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders this fall. Laurel Springs plans to offer the same service to its first- through eighth-graders in January, she said.

About 42 students opted for computer instruction, she said. Many of them already had computers at home, had a strong interest in them and knew how to cruise the Internet, she said.

Others are child actors, including one of the three sons on the hit TV show, “Home Improvement,” who find the convenience of tele-educating attractive. And some cyber-students enrolled so they could check in for weekly assignments, via modem, while traveling around the globe with their busy executive parents, Mosley said.

Many of the families in Laurel Springs’ online program are similar to the Jacobsons. Longtime residents of Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley, John Jacobson and his wife, Roberta, decided to enroll their son, Robert, in Laurel Springs rather than sending him to their local public high school.

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They were concerned about gangs, crime and the quality of education at Kennedy High School, said John Jacobson, 49, who works at home writing user manuals for computers.

“Our three older children went to public high schools,” he said. “But that was more than seven years ago and things have really gone downhill since then.”

Robert, 15, turns on his computer at 9 a.m. and works until 4 p.m., taking one hour off for lunch, his father said. He concentrates on one subject each day--chemistry, for instance--instead of switching topics every hour or so, Robert said.

Although he spends roughly the same time he would at a public school, Robert said he prefers learning at home.

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“I learn a lot more because I get to stick on one subject instead of flip-flopping back and forth,” he said.

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After school, he goes roller-blading with friends or heads out to the local hockey rink, Robert said.

But Learn OnLine has been a much more isolating experience for James Gavlik. The 13-year-old son of the program’s creator has been educating himself out of the family’s Mandalay Bay home for two years.

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On a recent day, for instance, he plugged in a CD-ROM called “Learn to Speak Spanish.” By clicking his way through various screens, James arrived at a chapter that included 100 new Spanish words to learn.

A voice on the disk asked James to repeat the proper pronunciation of a word. James learns instantly whether he has said the word correctly or used it properly in a sentence.

That immediate feedback means that final exams, or any exams at all, are not necessary, his father, John Gavlik said.

“What we’re really after is does the student understand the material they are learning, and not did they finish all the exercises on time,” the older Gavlik said.

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When he is not working on his computer, James said, he is watching television in the family home. He does not go outside to play with other children after school or on weekends, James said.

“Sometimes I play with our two cats,” he said.

Besides cruising the Internet and designing his own Web page, James has started two businesses with the help of his computer.

In one enterprise, he sold baseball cards on the Internet; currently, he is creating and selling student identification cards for Laurel Springs students.

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Although online instruction so far has been used mostly by home-schoolers, the potential for expansion into public schools is enormous, public school teachers, administrators and university academicians say.

In rural areas, for instance, home education via computer may prove more practical and cheaper than busing a few students who live miles apart to a centralized classroom, said Richard Simpson, assistant superintendent of instructional services for the Conejo Valley Unified School District.

Children who are already homebound because of physical or medical problems could be better served too, Simpson said. Right now, for example, a district teacher must drive daily to the home of a youngster recovering from back surgery, he said.

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“Clearly, it would be great if a student could be online instead of having a home teacher go out once a day.”

Richard Clark, a USC professor of education psychology, said online education might be appropriate for elementary-age boys who suffer from attention deficit disorder. He said the disorder is seen most often in boys.

Those boys, about 5% to 7% of the youth population, tend to have difficulty concentrating in the classroom and are often disruptive, he said. They also tend to exhibit obsessional behavior, Clark said.

“Many are obsessed with computer games and they can transfer some of that attention to computer instruction,” he said. “There is evidence to show that those who cannot control their behavior in a class can manage it in front of a computer.”

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Online education might also be appropriate for a select few students who are advanced far beyond their peers and require more challenge, said Terence R. Cannings, professor of education at Pepperdine University.

“Some kids are already forming their own virtual classrooms by connecting with other students in their bedrooms,” said Cannings, who has written textbooks on education technology and presented papers at international conferences.

“Education needs to understand that is already happening and use this tool, the Internet, to broaden the scope of learning for all children.”

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In Ventura County, virtual classrooms are being considered for Gateway Community School in Camarillo, said Charles Weis, county superintendent of schools.

Gateway, an independent study program with about 450 students, serves mainly teen-age mothers, former dropouts and students who have been expelled from other public schools.

Most already study at home, Weis said. So administrators have been talking about making laptop computers available for checkout that could be connected to the school’s mainframe computer, he said.

“We could send more work and give students more feedback on it than they get with the weekly meetings with a teacher,” Weis said.

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The microchip may also provide a solution to classroom overcrowding, a problem that California schools have long faced, he said.

If taxpayers don’t want to pass bonds to pay for school construction, educators can perhaps set up centralized storefronts where banks of computers are available to neighborhood students.

There, the children can individually log on and receive computerized instruction, Weis said.

“We’ve got to get more creative in education,” he said. “If we’re not going to be given the tools like classrooms, this is something we need to look at.”

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While they hold varying views on the best use for technology, many educators agree that individualized computer instruction will probably never totally replace the textbook and teacher-at-the-front-of-the-class model.

There will always be a significant percentage--about 30%--of schoolchildren who require the structure and discipline of a real-world school, those in education say. Students who are not self-starters probably will not do well with cyber-instruction, Mosley said.

“We really need students and parents who are motivated,” she said. “If we ask the student ‘How do you feel?,’ and they say ‘I really don’t care,’ then we usually say this is not the program for you.”

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Socialization is also an important issue, said USC’s Clark. In school, children learn not only how to get along with other children, but also acceptable behavior from adult role models, Clark said.

“Kids who interact with teachers and other adults pick up sophisticated, interpersonal skills--like how to negotiate when you are frustrated,” he said. “Instead of getting angry, they find another way to handle a difficult circumstance.”

This can become crucial when students graduate from high school and go looking for jobs, Weis said.

“Employers tell me that more people get fired because they can’t get along with other people than because they can’t do the work,” he said.

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Another obstacle to wide-scale use of home-to-school instruction is the cost. The dollars available for public education spending in California have been in a downward spiral since 1980, about the same time the computer revolution exploded, officials said.

Although the price of technology is dropping--and most experts predict that trend will continue--it costs about $2,500 to buy a powerful computer, laser printer, modem and monthly access to an online service for the home, experts say.

And for public schools, there is the added responsibility of providing equal access to technology, Conejo Valley Unified’s Simpson said.

“You still are going to have issues of families who don’t have the equipment because of economics,” he said. “And if the schools don’t supply it, then we can’t require that kids do work on computers at home.”

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The bottom line, many educators say, is that online instruction is a valuable option for learning. But it is only that--an option.

“I don’t think there is any research that says computer instruction is better,” Simpson said. “Lacking that, I think it would be foolhardy to abandon a system that, at least in the Conejo Valley, turns out kids who can perform and compete.”


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