27 April 2010

Universal School

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:23 pm

Beginnning in the fall, our local school district plans to offer a wide array of middle school and high school courses via the Internet — here’s the local paper’s report. Apparently Boulder is behind the curve on this trend: the article says that, in the past two years, more than 300 students have left the district schools and enrolled in online options offered in nearby districts. Courses and online teachers will be offered through a contract with Aventa, a vendor headquartered in Arizona. According to their website, Aventa has offered e-courses to over a thousand school districts nationwide.

“Eventually, Boulder Valley wants to have its own teachers instructing the online courses, according to assistant superintendent Pilch. “But right now, we are not ready to do that,” she said. The district has projected enrollment in the new online school to be the equivalent of 75 full-time students next year, Pilch said. That could be a combination of part-time and full-time students. “Those numbers are probably low,” she said. Pilch said online learning is “not for every student,” and district officials work with students up front to make sure they can succeed in an online course. “We want them to know that online learning engages students for just as many hours and at the same level of rigor as brick and mortar school,” she said.

During the current economic downturn schools here and throughout the country have confronted lower operating revenues. Salaries have been frozen; teachers and support staff have been let go. It seems almost certain that a single online teacher spends less time per student than does a classroom teacher, meaning lower per-pupil cost. The move to online education seems likely to continue, resulting in significant permanent losses of jobs and the individuation of what has traditionally been a communal educational experience.

Soon the Boulder Board of Education will be asked to approve the “Boulder Universal” proposal. I wonder what the teachers’ union has to say about it?



  1. i’m of two minds about this. where i teach now, they put them in large project classrooms, and they spent half of the project on the internet anyway – not doing any work. i often think, if they are taught via internet, at least they’ll do some work. most teachers are aged 55+ and not so fond of these changes, but maybe the changes are unavoidable.


    Comment by voice of parody — 27 April 2010 @ 3:44 pm

  2. I have mixed feelings about it too. I wasn’t fond of most of my teachers, and felt that I could learn as well on my own. Some kids aren’t particularly fond of their fellow students. We who blog have seen the potential, often for good, of online discussion. On-line education could offer much greater variety than many local schools can provide, which could work to the advantage of the non-average kids on both ends of the statistical distribution. However, I’d be willing to bet that the online teachers make less pay with fewer benefits and less job security than do classroom teachers in this country. In all likelihood the private schools will resist the trend to online classes, further stratifying the divide between rich and poor in terms of educational experience. I’d like to know whether online students learn as well as do the traditional classroom students — these studies have probably been done.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 April 2010 @ 5:28 pm

  3. There must be some connection between this proposal of universal internet school taught by online teachers, complaints about teachers being forced by administrators to measure educational processes and outcomes, some sort of voluntary communal university without administrators, lamentations about how kids today can’t read anymore, and the fact that annual tuition for private universities in America now typically costs $40,000 per year.

    Someone has probably traced the connection between the increase in recorded music and the decrease in live music performance. Long ago the advent of movable type increased access to recorded thinking, which probably reduced the importance of the “live” public philosopher and storyteller. The internet reduces barriers of access to music and writing, barriers which are only legal rather than physical and fairly easily sidestepped. An enormous variety of free musics and free texts becomes available. Promoters and publishers get cut out of the action, but so do the artists and thinkers: no more money to be made as a musician or a writer. Most of the really valuable cultural producers become voluntary workers. Etc.

    But meanwhile, even without the internet, books have long been available at a relatively cheap price — relative, that is, to live teachers. For the price of every hour a university student spends in a classroom with 30 other students, that student could buy a book. At the end of a single semester that student will have spent maybe 40 hours sitting in that classroom: that’s 40 books. Multiply that by 30 students per classroom: that’s 1200 books. Let’s say a teacher teaches 4 classes per semester, 2 semesters per year: that’s 1200 x 8 = 9,600 books.

    Now suppose the students agree to share some or all of these books among one another, like a distributed lending library. And that’s just one course. If these students take an average of 4 courses per semester, then in 4 years they’ll collectively own 9.6K x 4 x2 x 4 = what… something like 30 thousand books. And suppose the students agree to meet together to discuss these books, or perhaps they discuss them online with students scattered elsewhere around the world…


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 April 2010 @ 6:42 am

  4. Is the high school classroom really much of a true communal learning experience? That is, is it a place where there is dynamic interaction and stimulating dialog? Or is it mostly a place where students figure out what information they need to cram into their heads so that they can pass quizzes, turn in homework, and get the right information for the exams.

    My high school experience was not a learning community. So, I say why not go online?

    If education was something that really took advantage of the “live teacher/educator/mentor” in a significant way, then I’d say that we need to fight for the brick and mortar schools; but the educational system seems broken to me. If all that is really happening is stuffing info. into brains, then why not just do this online? It’s more cost-effective, the student can presumably take more responsibility for his/her learning (maybe even design his/her own course of study sometimes), and it might open up new forums for discussions. All kids would be missing is some of the politics of high school.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 28 April 2010 @ 8:48 am

  5. Families move into Boulder County in order to enroll their kids in the local schools, which are deemed excellent based on standardized test results. But to what can the excellence be attributed: the teaching? the intelligence of students as individuals? the critical mass of smart kids who bring out the best in each other? a local community culture that places high value on education?

    I don’t doubt that pedagogical techniques get better all the time. Efforts are made to involve kids actively in the educational process, individually and in groups. But overall, standardized tests aren’t trending substantially upward. We can of course critique the tests as not accurately measuring what’s important about learning. What then would be an accurate measure?

    Our daughter Kenzie, who is a junior in high school, thinks the online school is a bad idea. Main reason: the in-class conversations between teacher and students makes learning more interesting and captivating. Plus it’s possible to get immediate clarification through Q&A of hard-to-understand concepts. The personality of the teacher can add a lot to the class, Kenzie thinks, even if she doesn’t like that teacher’s personality. It’s a less homogenous milieu than what’s liable to happen in a generic online class. Now I suppose Kenzie could be indoctrinated by the teachers and is therefore biased, but I could easily imagine her thinking that her teachers all suck and would be happy to be rid of them.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 April 2010 @ 1:25 pm

  6. Yesterday the local newspaper had two other related stories to report. (1) In response to budget shortfalls, the Boulder Valley School District intends to push for an across-the-board salary cut affecting all employees, rather than axing some number of teachers and administrators. (2) A company that runs a few gifted private schools is exploring the possibility of starting one in Boulder.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 April 2010 @ 9:05 am

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