More clicks than cliques

Times Staff Writer

As an alpha nerd, Harper Robertson naturally thinks her high school is kickwump -- a word her class coined. She wouldn’t be prouder if it had the top-ranked football team on planet Earth, which it most decidedly doesn’t and never will.

“I knew I was going to a nerdy high school when I realized that the only elective was Java programming,” she said.

If you could set foot on Harper’s campus -- you can’t -- you’d see what she loves about it. It’s a school for teens who never fit into the traditional classroom because they were too high-achieving, too driven, too intellectually curious or all of the above; youths who were lumped under the general heading of “gifted,” although the gift didn’t always come with instructions for assembly.

Now students say they have a school where they belong: the EPGY Online High School, part of what may be the oldest online learning program in the world, Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth.


The Stanford program intertwines two uneven threads in modern education: online learning and differentiated instruction for the gifted. As it turns out, it’s a natural marriage, and one that underscores the potential for computers to help break down the one-size-fits-all paradigm of many U.S. schools.

Ray Ravaglia, a co-founder of Online High, calls traditional pedagogy the “Panama Canal theory of education,” which holds that all students must rise with their class until it reaches the top of the lock, at which point they float forward in unison. There, those on top stay high and dry -- and bored. Those at the bottom drown, educationally speaking.

“We feel that all kids need to learn at their own rate,” said Janet Keating, the head of Online High. With the technology now available, “I finally understand that we can do this.”

Online High began last September with 30 students, and officials hope to expand it to around 100 in the fall. Admission is based on a variety of factors, including grades, test scores, samples of student work and interviews. Next year’s tuition for full-time students is $12,000.

Harper logs on from her home in Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco. Jake Scheps goes to class in his bedroom in Van Nuys, emerging periodically for food, exercise and music. Matthew Bunday taps in from Minnetonka, Minn. Their classmates, with whom they gather by video conference most days, live in such cities as London, Hong Kong and Seoul.

“As long as I have an Internet connection, I’m good,” said Harper, who dropped out of a traditional high school after one semester, feeling that it had almost nothing to teach her. Her family is moving from California to England next year, but there will be no need to change schools.

Although online schools are not unique, Stanford’s tries hard to reproduce many of the trappings of a traditional high school. There is a student government, a student newspaper, a yearbook and clubs.

These include the Google Earth Society, the Philosophy Club and the Culinary Club, in which students try out recipes and discuss them online. There’s also talk about starting a garage band. Of course, the garage would be virtual.

The online education program has its origins in the early 1960s. Before there was an Internet, before there were PCs, Stanford scientists set out to determine whether computers, which at the time were building-size behemoths, could be used to train budding mathematicians.

At one point, according to Ravaglia, this involved a convoluted melding of computers, film strips and teletype technology to deliver curriculum in images and print.

By the late ‘60s, this proto-techno-tutoring had evolved into a program for the deaf, linking a central server at Stanford to teletype machines in schools for deaf students across the country.

“I like to say that five years before the beginning of the Internet, we were doing a nationally distributed, computer-based education system,” said Ravaglia, who arrived at Stanford as an undergrad in 1983 and never left.

The prototype for today’s online school began when Stanford received a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue its work by creating an online Advanced Placement course in calculus for gifted middle and high school students. At the end of the course, 12 of the 13 students received scores of 4 or 5 -- the highest scores possible -- on the AP test.

“It wasn’t that these kids had abilities that put them over the moon,” said Ravaglia. Rather, he said, their success demonstrated that “structured, systematic presentation of the material, regular milestones and expectations, and somebody to talk to when you had questions -- that’s all that was really needed.”

The distance learning program gradually expanded and today offers nearly 40 courses, most in math and science as a supplement to high school, but also in expository writing and music theory. The math courses take students from elementary school classes through university-level courses such as Real Analysis, Point-Set Topology and Axiomatic Set Theory.

But the typical course makes no effort to replicate the classroom. Students work on their own time and at their own pace on prepared online lessons, which can include “canned” lectures but rarely feature live interaction.

The Online High School uses similar formats in some math and science classes but tends to make greater use of video conferencing to create virtual classrooms, in which students interact with one another and with the teacher.

In fact, “interactive” barely begins to describe an Online High class.

Take Jeff Scarborough’s class, a rigorous social science course called “Democracy, Freedom and the Rule of Law,” which is required for all students.

As class begins, students log on and see a list, running down the left side of their screens, of everyone present. As Scarborough starts the class, his face pops up on a small video screen in the upper left-hand corner. The bulk of the screen is a virtual whiteboard, on which Scarborough presents the points of the lesson, changing them to reflect the discussion as the class unfolds.

And the discussion -- today, it’s about John Dewey’s “Liberalism and Social Action” and F.A. Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty” -- is lively. As Scarborough speaks, little hand icons pop up next to student’s names, meaning they have their hands raised to talk. As he calls on students, their video images replace his. The talk is quick and sharp, ranging over the meaning of liberty, the ancillary meaning of freedom and the question of whether political liberty is naturally occurring.

It is heady stuff, a lot to absorb. But that’s not all that’s going on. On top of reading Scarborough’s notes on the screen and listening to him and their classmates speaking, the students maintain a running conversation of instant messages, which pop up near the bottom of the screen. It’s like students passing notes in class, except that this is sanctioned -- mostly. Occasionally, when the messages spin off into nonstop puns or other forms of nonacademic amusement, Scarborough has to issue a warning to focus on the class material.

Mostly, though, these are 21st century students who seem capable of doing five things at once.

Their teachers are not convinced that intelligence alone explains why the students are thriving, as most seem to do.

“They don’t possess any genetic type of smarts that other kids don’t have,” said Marc Sanders, head of the school’s math department, who teaches university-level math in some classes, even though some of the students are barely out of middle school.

What they have, he said, is a love of learning.

For many parents, the school is a dream come true. Some had been home-schooling their children but were reaching the limits of what they could offer them. Others had their children in traditional schools.

Online High has its limitations. It does not offer art, drama, dance or musical performance classes or, obviously, physical education. It didn’t offer a foreign language this year, although there are plans for that in the future.

Students are left to their own devices on those fronts. Some have turned to their neighborhood schools. Aaron Kahn, who lives in San Jose, said the principal of a nearby school seemed happy to accommodate him. He takes AP French, AP statistics and wind ensemble. Others haven’t been so lucky; some school districts have been reluctant to allow students to enroll for one or two classes.

Some parents worried initially that their children wouldn’t have satisfying social lives in an online high school.

So far, that has not been the case. Some students have made close bonds with their online classmates -- in some cases, they say, among the closest relationships they’ve ever had in school. There is much instant messaging and e-mailing throughout the day, in and out of class, and some students have traveled to get together.

Oddly enough, it has come to feel like a school -- right down to its own traditions and goofy slang. Kickwump, for instance.

Harper says that students were studying the Gilded Age in American History and were reading about the Mugwump Party. Translating it into modern slang, they came up with kickwump. “So, if something is really cool, we now say, ‘That is so kickwump,’ except we abbreviate it to kw, because we’re speaking online.”


mitchell.landsberg@latimes. com