Learning Online

Fall 2010

By Jeff Vinikoor

For many students and parents, the value of an independent school education lies in the personal connections that students develop with intelligent and caring faculty and staff. Independent schools create the time and space for both formal and informal interactions, helping students develop the emotional intelligence that will allow them to succeed long after graduation. Over the last decade, despite the tremendous growth in the use of personal mobile communications devices, independent schools have successfully maintained a community space free from the beeping and buzzing that frequently pervades contemporary life and disturbs sacred learning spaces. 

Yet personal computing, the Internet, and mobile communications technologies have profoundly impacted independent schools and their students. While school policies and networking capabilities vary — some schools have pursued one-to-one laptop programs while others have sought to minimize the use of laptops in the classroom — computer technologies are nearly ubiquitous in independent school education. Students conduct research online, use virtual discussion boards to continue classroom discussions, and record and edit audio and video. The fabric of today’s independent school education includes technology. Even those teachers who consider themselves modern-day Luddites couldn’t imagine working without email, which has become a fundamental tool for communication with students, parents, and colleagues. 

Independent school students are, by and large, early adaptors and eager users of technology. Many students see laptops and mobile communications devices as more than vital tools; they are also fundamental parts of their identities. Studies have shown that teens from wealthier families are more likely to own and use a variety of Internet-enabled devices. And while cyber-bullying and misuses of technology present great challenges to educators, parents, and children, the growing use of technology and the increasing availability of high-speed Internet-connections present tremendous opportunities for educators.

Over the last several years, a number of websites have emerged that enable entire classes to meet online, unrestrained by the confines of the school building and limits of the school day. These websites allow groups to collaborate in real time — to learn from and with each other in a virtual setting that attempts to mirror the classroom. These websites are becoming increasingly affordable and rich in features. Many now allow users to host an interactive conference, complete with one or more cameras, live chat sessions, collaborative white boards, screen sharing, and more. 

These technologies present both a challenge and an opportunity to independent schools. On one hand, independent schools face a strategic threat from virtual schools and cyber-charter schools, which have embraced these technologies and which operate entirely online. These schools, which enroll over one million American school children annually, draw students from families who seek an alternative to traditional public school education, the same students who might otherwise have considered an independent school education. On the other hand, web technologies give independent schools the opportunity to add to the value of an independent school education by extending teaching and learning to the virtual sphere. In this way, these technologies can support the work of teachers and strengthen the position of independent schools by creating a hybrid model of education — substantially campus-based and enriched by distance-learning technologies. 

In order to better understand these websites and their potential in independent school education, I have experimented with several, including www.DimDim.com, www.WIZiQ.com, BigBlueButton.org, and Elluminate.com. I have found DimDim.com to offer the features that I like best — videoconferencing, chat room capabilities, and easy access for students across computing platforms and web browsers — at a reasonable monthly price. Other providers, of course, offer features that may appeal to other teachers. I have used these websites to offer students optional interactive online review sessions before major assessments. Having held many such sessions, I have a few observations worthy of sharing: 

  • Students thrive in digital interactive environments. As “digital natives,” students feel comfortable online. Participating in optional online sessions gives students a sense of autonomy as they chose both if to participate and how to participate. I’ve found that students delve into material more fully when engaged in these online review sessions and they often engage with each other — answering questions in a chat room, for example — naturally and productively. 
  • Students enjoy working after hours. I usually hold thirty-minute sessions on the evenings before major assessments. I usually start the sessions at 8 PM so that students have time after extra-curricular activities to begin their work and gather their thoughts before logging on. Although these sessions have required some additional work in the evenings, I have found that the number of last-minute questions I receive via email before assessments has dropped significantly. 
  • Parents love seeing their sons and daughters use technology in the evening for academic work. I have had many parents tell me that they are delighted to see their children use the expensive computers they have purchased to do more than social networking. While this is not a reason alone to pursue the technology, it certainly doesn’t hurt. 
  • Evening sessions online create time for more personal and creative endeavors during the school day. I have been able to use class periods before major assessments for substantial group work and one-on-one sessions. By moving some elements of teaching and learning online, I have been able to use the shared physical space of the classroom more productively.
  • The Internet can serve as a key tool in emergency planning. Because the web technologies I’ve described allow teaching and learning to take place off campus, they may serve as an important tool in emergency planning. As schools anticipate closings because of pandemics or other emergencies, they should consider how web technologies can enable the work of teaching and learning to continue — in some form — away from campus. 

While my experiences reflect one teacher’s investigation into a vast and rapidly changing realm of new technologies, they also speak to a future in which teaching and learning can embrace the most effective pedagogies alongside the most powerful technologies. American inventor Charles Kettering once said, “My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.” The interest teachers have in the future is even grander: We are preparing students to spend their lives in a world we ourselves will never experience. In that spirit, independent school teachers must examine new e-learning web technologies, which are reshaping education across the globe, in order to best serve our students as they venture off into a world of increasing technological change. 

Works Consulted

Greenhow, C., Robelia, B, and Hughes, J. E. “Learning, Teaching, and Scholarship in a Digital Age: Web 2.0 and Classroom Research: What Path Should We Take Now?” Educational Researcher 38 (2009): 246-259. 

International Association for K-12 Online Learning 

Madden, M., “Four or More: The New Demographic.” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, July 27, 2010. 

Picciano, A. G., and Seaman J., “K–12 Online Learning: A 2008 Follow-up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators.” Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium, 2009. 

Rotella, Carlo, “Anytime, Anywhere.” The New York Times, September 16, 2010.

Jeff Vinikoor

Jeff Vinikoor teaches Upper School Humanities at Newark Academy (Livingston, New Jersey). He has a great interest in the integration of technology into the humanities classroom and has presented twice on the topic at the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools conference.