Cyber learning

LaShawn Doolittle looks to the future when it comes to the education of her children. And that future doesn't include Richmond County schools. Or any traditional school, for that matter.


The classroom for the Doolittle family -- 13-year-old Courtney, 8-year-old Savon and 13-year-old cousin Nashatia Hardwick -- is the kitchen of their Hephzibah home. The children use a laptop to connect with Newnan-based Georgia Virtual Academy for the daily lessons.

The Doolittles say traditional public schools don't address the needs of their children, and home schooling is costly and burdensome. Damien Doolittle said mainstream education teaches too much to the test, not focusing enough on learning or the needs of individual students. Through the virtual school, his children can learn at their own pace and get greater attention.

The children prefer this setting also.

"It's better than school because you don't have the loud kids disrupting class," Courtney said.

Georgia Virtual Academy, a hybrid of home school, public education and online learning, has done little to market its first year of operation. Still, the school for first- through eighth-graders has enrolled 2,650 pupils from throughout the state, including 85 in Richmond County and 44 in Columbia County.

This teaching model, in which the Internet breaks down physical boundaries, is expected to grow. But there is resistance, much of it from educators and business and community leaders, who were well-served in the traditional classroom.

THOSE WHO GREW UP in the 20th century have this "image of the school with boxes where adults talk to kids," said Joe Graba, the senior policy fellow for Education Evolving, a St. Paul, Minn.-based organization dedicated to helping schools as the education model changes.

Mr. Graba, who has spent more than 40 years as an educator and elected official, likened the use of technology in schools to the early days of film. Many of the first moving pictures were little more than recordings of stage plays. In much the same way, the first personal computers were used primarily as typewriters. When automobiles first came on the scene, no one imagined drive-through restaurants or banking.

"My belief is that we've tried to shove the technology into the old school framework, and we've spent millions -- I suppose billions -- of dollars around the country over the last 20 years trying to supercharge the old system," Mr. Graba said. "Frankly, I don't think that you can get the real benefits of these technologies if you don't fundamentally change the structure of school and schooling."

IT'S NOT AN EMBRACE of the virtual education model, but just down the street from the Doolittles is Goshen Elementary School, where teachers infuse technology into the classroom.

Holding a high-tech pen in their small hands, the Goshen Elementary children can navigate through an electronic interactive board, searching for the right color that they want to use to digitally trace the letter of the day.

The scraping of chalk has been replaced by the clicking of the digital age in this "21st Century Classroom," a class that meets Georgia's specifications of what a high-tech classroom should be.

The Richmond County school board advisory committee is considering whether investing in these classrooms is the best use of $6 million in sales tax revenue earmarked for technology.

A few of the nation's schools have embraced the vision of the future. One such school is Cyber Village Academy in St. Paul.

It's a school where many of its pupils need not bother coming to campus, yet it continually meets the standards set forth by No Child Left Behind.

"The school has always done as well or better than schools throughout the district and the state," said David Alley, the school's director.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education's 2007 report card, 85 percent of the academy's pupils were proficient in reading, compared with 77 percent of pupils statewide. In math, 70 percent were proficient, slightly better than the state's 69 percent average. The school also had a higher attendance with 99 percent. The state as a whole had less than 95 percent.

All Cyber Village pupils get lessons five days a week through the use of online education, Dr. Alley said.

The school demonstrates that "one size doesn't fit all," he said. The beauty of it is that it's portable; it can be accessed by pupils who are so ill they can't attend brick-and-mortar schools and by children of professional athletes who travel often.

Finances aren't a barrier, either. Those who can't afford a computer can request a free one from the academy, although the number of requests is down each year as computers become more common, he said.

"People still talk about the digital divide, but from where we sit it's narrowing," Dr. Alley said.

THE DOOLITTLES DON'T PAY anything to give their children a virtual education. The Georgia Department of Education pays for the program because it's a state charter school.

The program supplements the cost of Internet access. Mrs. Doolittle said she was spending up to $1,500 on the curriculum to home school one child. Resources provided through the virtual program include a microscope, petri dishes, counting blocks and everything they would find and need in a traditional classroom, Mrs. Doolittle said.

A daily lesson plan must be accessed online by each pupil. The lesson plan can consist of computer work assignments and book work. Instruction is also given during assemblies. The children are able to ask questions with a microphone, indicate they don't understand with the click of the mouse and receive live instruction through Web-based chats.

Bill Tucker, the chief operating officer of Education Sector, a Washington, D.C., nonpartisan, nonprofit education think tank, said virtual education has seen a lot of growth nationally.

A year ago, he found 173 virtual schools educating more than 92,000 pupils. He said the enrollment growth at Georgia Virtual Academy has been phenomenal.

There have been some "questionable" models, but accountability has increased, Mr. Tucker said.

Schooling in the future might resemble Boy Scouts of today -- children of different ages working at their own pace with a variety of adults, said Tim Waters, the president and chief executive officer of Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

"They don't go to classrooms to do that," Dr. Waters said. "They are on very different schedules. A lot of that is self-directed, but under the supervision of adults and under a pretty defined set of objectives and assessment criteria for determining whether or not they've done what they need, learned what they need, mastered the skill they need to earn whatever it is they are trying to earn."

Mr. Graba said pupils will direct their learning as they get older. That learning will increasingly come from outside sources, such as community-based learning and the Internet.

"The online schools we see exploding around the country are making use of the technology, but they are still sort of trapped with this idea that we need to have courses, and I think that that will begin to change over time," Mr. Graba said.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or


When a student in Virtual High School passes a note to a classmate, there's a good chance that person isn't in the same state or even the same country.

The classmate could be in one of 29 states or 23 countries participating in the global network of schools, where students can learn online around the clock.

A 21st century education requires that students be able to interact with other cultures, said Liz Pape, the president and CEO of Virtual High School Global Consortium. So, a class on modern American democracy takes on new meaning when its students include some in Africa, the Middle East or Asia, Ms. Pape said.

"This is way more than just text on the screen," she said.

The school, physically based in Massachusetts, also offers the International Baccalaureate curriculum, Ms. Pape said, hoping that someday online learning will be seen as the norm.

Online programs that complement traditional instruction account for most virtual learning environments, said Bill Tucker of Education Sector, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, nonpartisan education think tank. Schools in which students study entirely online are the exception rather than the rule.