Web 2.0 could play key role in schools of the future

Educators see benefits to social networking tools, virtual classes

If you remember high school as a haze of boring lectures by uninspired teachers broken up only by grinding homework, then you might wish you were a kid today.

Pushed by new social networking technology and successes in e-learning by universities and corporate trainers, K-12 public schools are starting to adopt high-tech tools that let students create their own curriculums, satisfying their intellectual curiosities and passions, and avoiding the stifling rigidity that many associate with traditional public schools.

Take the 11-year-old Florida Virtual School, which served nearly 64,000 students last year across the US. Courses offered by the Virtual School ranged from remedial to honors.

"One third of our students come to us because they are failing, one third come for our [advanced placement] classes and one-third like the ability to take classes anytime of the day," said Andy Ross, vice president of global services and development for the school. "We track everything, so we know we have lots of kids logging on at 4 a.m. in their time zone."

Among the school's innovations are a "virtual Shakespeare festival" and an upcoming game called Conspiracy Code, developed by 360Ed, that students will be able to use instead of taking a US history course.

Students are also allowed to re-take courses multiple times "within reason" until they master the content, which is the ultimate goal, Ross said. "Not everyone's on page 43 of the same textbook." he said.

At Philadelphia's School of the Future, students tote Gateway laptops, not textbooks, and take part in cross-disciplinary online projects rather than standard English, math and science curriculums.

"Our kids use MySpace and Facebook. They are posting their work online and having online conversations," said Rosalind Chivis, the school's "chief learner" or principal.

Ross and Chivis were both attendees at the fourth annual School of the Future Summit sponsored by Microsoft and held in the US this week.

According to keynote speaker Michael Horn, head of the Innosight education think tank and author of the book Disrupting Class, the number of high school students taking classes online has grown to 1 million last year from 45,000 in 2000.

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