Sunday, June 10, 2007

Learning via Skype

Broadband access to the Internet and the proliferation of a diverse set of free communications utilities are beginning to open new opportunities to access education. An article in this week's Economist highlights the language-instruction company Praxis, which is making use of e-mail, podcasts, and the free Voice-over-IP (VoIP) utility Skype to offer a course in Chinese. Students study lessons sent via e-mail, listen to recordings through the daily podcast, and engage in live speaking practice with one of the company's 35 native speakers in Shanghai.

These very readily available, low-cost solutions could prove useful in the public sector of formal education, as they have begun to in the private non-formal sector. Public school districts in particularly large rural regions in America, such as Montana or Alaska, have faced a certain amount of difficulty in meeting the No Child Left Behind standards for Highly Qualified Teachers. Federal regulations require that teachers have content-matter expertise in the subjects they teach--which is quite reasonable since many studies indicate that teachers with content-knowledge in their field are, in general, more effective. But, small class sizes render uneconomical the hiring of teachers in different subjects for each school, and large distances between schools inhibits teachers covering multiple schools.

With off-the-shelf technology--including a number of freely available tools--teachers in one location could serve a pool of students from several different schools. One school may have the English teacher and another the Math teacher, but the classes would learn together, connected via videoconferencing over the Internet. An on-site paraprofessional could monitor students and provide any necessary in-person support. While remote areas sometimes lack access to broadband Internet connections, installing such an infrastructure for the school may , in the end, provide a net savings compared with personnel costs, as well as an increase in the quality of instruction.

Some public schools are already experimenting with the new modes of instruction that advances in telecommunications are permitting. The Chicago Virtual Charter School just completed its first year of providing what amounts to a home-schooling environment with professional teacher support mediated through the Internet and periodic in-school sessions. The school has received a certain amount of opposition: The Chicago teachers union has filed a lawsuit that would shut down the school on the grounds that it violates the Illinois School Code's definition of charter schools as "public, nonsectarian, non-religious, non-home based" (105 ILCS 5/27A-5, emphasis added). On another front, Rep. Monique Davis introduced HB0232 in the Illinois General Assembly, which would ban any form of virtual school. After several amendments, the bill was sent to the Senate in a form that would merely establish a two-year, sixteen-member Task Force on Virtual Education.


Anonymous said...

You blog so much more than I do. haha.

Michael Culbertson said...

The Boston Globe has an article on Stanford University's Education Program for Gifted Youth Online High School.