John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Public education has certainly been altered by technology, but soon it may be transformed. An article from the Boston Globe tells of the growth of "virtual public schools," replacing bricks and mortar and teachers of traditional classrooms:
The schools would have no desks or lockers, not even a cafeteria to trade gossip over a plate of chicken nuggets. Instead, students could take classes from the comfort of their homes or a neighborhood coffeehouse, as teachers convey lessons via the Internet.
This is a snapshot of virtual public schools in Massachusetts, which could open as soon as this fall, enabling hundreds of students to take all their classes online.
The first such school is poised to open this fall in Greenfield, a small city of rolling pastures and a quaint downtown in Western Massachusetts. Just last week, its School Committee set an enrollment goal of up to 600 students, and is seeking a principal to further develop the "Massachusetts Virtual Academy at Greenfield," which will be open to students statewide in kindergarten through grade 8.
"We're looking to create a terrific 21st-century school district," said Susan Hollins, the superintendent in Greenfield, which began a push for virtual schools last year with state leaders.
The schools are being developed under a little-known provision of the state's sweeping education law enacted in January. The law, which urges districts to pursue innovations, gave local school committees authority to create public schools that operate almost entirely in cyberspace.
But across the nation, virtual public schools have been growing in popularity in such states as Texas, Colorado, and Arizona, online education specialists say.
Education takes up a huge chunk of local budgets, and this represents a dramatic departure from current practice. No doubt teachers and students will continue to mostly meet in classrooms. But as the virtual public schools in Massachusetts and the Florida Virtual School demonstrate, digital content can be replicated almost without cost. With more than 40 million school children out there, even if 10 percent of learning were to take place online, it would represent a massive shift in efficiency.