Virtual Learning in Newton

My nephew (college sophomore) and niece (high school senior) live in Merritt Island, FL, and they have taken about 1/3 of their coursework online via the Florida Virtual High School (FVHS). This high school program is fully accredited and their local school gives 100% credit towards graduation. The program gives them access to coursework not available locally, and gives them great scheduling flexibility. Newton residents can access these FVHS courses for $400 per semester.

Anecdotally the quality of the coursework they have taken is uneven, with some great and challenging courses, and others that are not as rigorous as they might find within the walls of a classroom. But what intrigues me is the model of online learning, which, for the right student, gives them access to classes not otherwise available, and at low cost relative to hiring full-time classroom teachers.

Now is the time for Newton to consider piloting virtual learning in our high schools, and there may even be some minor application at the middle school level. We can take this incrementally, with offerings of classes that are otherwise being cut due to budget pressure. We are scheduled to lose Russian, some high-level math, science and business classes, and others starting in the fall of 2011. Before we start chopping away at the celebrated breadth of course offerings that is Newton’s hallmark, we should create a modest virtual learning pilot.

How do we pay for it? First, as can be derived from the FVHS model, costs per course are relatively low. And why not ask for support from area corporations and institutions who have an interest in developing virtual learning? The Needham software firm PTC has provided seed money for Newton’s FIRST Robotics program and for the new NNHS Innovation Lab. I wonder what Raytheon or EMC might help us with if asked?

The challenge for us here in Newton is to get past some of the potential negatives, and to modify this model as necessary to make it work for us. In other words, let’s not shoot this idea down – instead we should recognize that virtual/online learning is growing in the educational world, and Newton should lead in innovating the best structure.