Thursday, July 24, 2008

5.*: An 'e' school of the future?

[Note - this post will be of relevance to ePrimer 5, once it is finished]. From Edutopia.

A new high school in Chicago, VOISE Academy High School, is trying something (mostly) new - laptops for all students, and a completely online resource-base. I say (mostly) because there is still plenty that will be familiar to students in all schools - teachers, a curriculum, even classes. However there is also an emphasis on different pedagogies - individualised tuition, teachers appointed specifically for their ability to facilitate learning through teaching relationships, problem-based learning.

This is exciting and heady stuff. But, many questions arise for me from the article. How are the tensions between individualised instruction and curriculum handled? Do students still need to attend classes? Besides access to electronic information, purposeful use of online resources, and an emphasis on problem-based learning, what is really new? Is this approach scalable? Will it suit all learners?

Probably the most provocative matter for me is the terminology used, and some of the underlying assumptions made. The same approach is described as 'tech-centred' and 'student-centred'; which is it? Both, perhaps? What might the use of both terms used side-by-side reveal about the article? I think a far stronger case could be made for describing the approach as learning-centred, with technology enabling different pedagogies which may prove more effective.

I say may prove more effective because of another assumption made in the article: "...learning what it should be: student directed, project based, rigorous, and relevant".

Actually, learning should be appropriate to what it means to flourish in society (Brighouse), subject-centred (Palmer), understanding-oriented (Ramsden) and transformative (Mezirow). Further, the descriptions used in the article need further unpacking. To what extent can a curriculum-based approach be 'student centred'? Does 'student centred' mean learning just what I want to, or just what interests me? What are the dangers of this? And, 'project-based'... is this a sound approach for all forms of learning? What does use of the term conceal? For example, learning Spanish is mentioned in the article. To what extent would a 'project-based' approach work here? Is 'project-based' the most effective and efficient means of learning another language? 'Relevant' is a highly charged one - relevant to whom? Is studying Shakespeare 'relevant'? If not, is it beneficial nevertheless?

Also intriguing is the school's use of Apex Learning courses... I, for one, would love to take a look at how these are constructed, assessed, and facilitated through the school. This is the real point of interest to me as an e-learning specialist, far moreso than the fact that laptops are used and resources are available online. How are such courses facilitated? How might this differ from courses offered through the school itself? Finally, the school is probably more likely to attract students with parents who value the pedagogical approach... the very students who are most likely to succeed from the approach on offer. This is likely to influence the transferability of the approach, and casts some doubts on it as a valid case study.

I do not post here to cast any doubt on what looks to be a very interesting and progressive initiative! Rather, I think we must attempt to be more critical and accurate in our descriptions of how technology is aplied to education, and to be mindful of the overall context in which such initiatives are offered. The Chicago high school in question is attempting something very bold and innovative... the results will be worthy of following. I suspect that it will result in a mild overall improvement, with some excellent results for those students such an approach suits!

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