Imagine high school biology students logging onto a video game in which they play the role of a white blood cell traversing the human body, fighting bacteria and disease. Imagine middle school students performing old-fashioned frog dissections on a computer application. Imagine teachers and students engaging in a lively debate over the Revolutionary War on their class Facebook wall.

That was the future on display Tuesday at the Brookings Institute’s discussion on social networking and education.

These possibilities are tantalizing to education’s thinkers and dreamers, but their practicality and impact on traditional structures (namely, brick-and-mortar schools and red-blooded teachers) must be reconciled before they gain widespread acceptance. What will adopting these technologies cost? What about the need to encourage personal engagement?

A Brookings panel (featuring Constance Steinkuehler Squire, senior science and technology policy analyst for President Barack Obama; Janet Kolodner, information and intelligent systems program officer at the National Science Foundation, Maria Ucelli-Kashyap, policy analyst at the American Federation of Teachers; and Holly Sagues, chief policy officer at the Florida Virtual School) probed these questions with Darrell West, director of the Brookings Institute’s Governance Studies program and author of a new paper on the subject.

“School has gone from being a noun, a place where you go to learn, to a verb with a focus on learning,” Sagues said. According to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning, 30 states have statewide full-time virtual schools. An estimated 1.8 million students are participating at least part-time in an online course, and 250,000 attend virtual classes full-time.

Perhaps the most fundamental question came from an audience member: how does the idea of a “school” or a “teacher” change in an education environment driven by social media and technology?

Ucelli-Kashyap asserted that, as a slew of studies have concluded that instructors have the most significant impact on student success, that fundamental teacher-to-student relationship must be maintained. “It may look different and feel different, but it’s not going to go away,” she said. She urged states and school districts to bolster professional development opportunities for teachers so they can better utilize new technologies.

Practically speaking, Kolodner said, there will still be a need for a school structure. Technology might become more integrated into school buildings, but it is unlikely that all students will soon become home-schooled. “Parents need to work,” she said, garnering laughs.

Still, the possibilities are boundless. Panelists envisioned video games that could give instant assessments for a student’s grasp of a subject; the data opportunities are enormous, they said. According to West's research, initial research indicates learning through video games could improve students' image identification abilities and quantitative reasoning. Perhaps as importantly, a survey found that 86 percent of students would rather learn from a game than a textbook.

An important focus as new media become more prominent, the panelists said, is ensuring equity of access. Students from rural, low-income districts should have the same opportunities as wealth surburban students. That requires these technologies to be cost-effective for states and schools.

As Governing has previously reported, early studies suggest digital learning could actually save money for states and school districts. An analysis released earlier this year by the Education Center of Excellence at the Parthenon Group (and commissioned by the conservative Fordham Institute) estimated that a blended learning model, which combines online and traditional modes, could save more than $1,000 per student. A fully virtual environment? Up to $3,600 in savings.

Florida Virtual School, founded in 1997 as the nation’s first fully online public school, has had a similar experience, Sagues said. The school saves money on administrative services and the upkeep of physical grounds, although some of that is offset by increased spending on technology. Add it all up and Sagues said the school spends about $1,300 less per student than traditional Florida high schools.

As an early adopter, Florida Virtual School (with an enrollment of more than 120,000 students) provides perhaps the most advanced real-world example of what the education of the future might look like. Some students enroll part-time and take classes at their local school; others virtually attend full-time. Pupils consume the curriculum through online lectures, mobile applications and, yes, even video games. The school has launched full-course games that take students through American history and intensive reading classes. They interact with teachers via video conferencing, web chats and text messaging. They upload YouTube videos and post to class wiki pages to file graded assignments.

But, as Ucell-Kashyap stressed, Sagues said the interactions between teachers and students is still central to the school’s learning model. Teachers, parents and students are required to have regular “voice-to-voice” conversations, whether over the phone or through video conferences. “The more communication, the better,” she said. “Building that relationship is one of the key components of a successful virtual program.”

That perspective might assuage critics who worry virtual education could breed a generation of socially inept adults. After all, group projects and class discussions are classic elements of a traditional education. The potential for online learning is endless, but that must be tempered with a focus on a child’s overall development. “Any tool or resource is going to be as effective as its use,” Kolodner said. “It all depends on that.”

“Technology is not a panacea,” Ucelli-Kashyap said, “but it can be a great tool.”

The full Brookings paper, "How Blogs, Social Media, and Video Games Improve Education", is below.