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 nationwide. Courses offered by the Orlando-based 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 Inc., that students will be able to use instead of taking a U.S. 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 Corp. and held in Seattle 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.
When computers are stuck in classrooms with ill-trained teachers who use them to supplement the lecture-and-textbook mode of instruction, they add little value, said education consultant and blogger, Will Richardson.
"You might as well give them the airline pre-takeoff speech: 'Please turn off all electronic devices,'" Richardson said. "Policies today make it very difficult for kids to explore the fruits of social networking."
Rather, students need to be empowered and allowed to use technologies freely. That means letting kids text each other on their smart phones during school rather than banning them altogether, encouraging the use of MySpace, FaceBook and instant messaging to help them get their homework done, even removing Internet porn filters since they are so easily hacked, Richardson said. Or they should be allowed to stay home and attend a virtual school.
Besides being a richer, more flexible way of learning that challenges a wider range of students, advocates say social networking better prepares students for a working world that is adopting those tools.
"Public education is not a monopoly," said Chad Stevens, CTO of the Clear Creek Independent School District near Houston, Texas. "We compete with charter schools and private schools and online schools. If we don't embrace this, we'll be like those long-gone companies that didn't embrace disruptive innovation in their industries."
A longtime teacher and school principal in his district, Stevens oversaw the launch of Clear Creek virtual high school, e4 Academy, this summer. Students take courses online and at their own pace, mentored and guided by teachers using instant messaging and, in some cases, Facebook.
"Distance learning doesn't mean being distant from the student," Stevens said.
e4 Academy today is mostly used by students as a replacement for summer school. But Stevens envisions a not-so-distant time when virtual courses will be widely available, and "kids, instead of going to first or second period, will head to the Internet cafe to take their classes."
It may not be surprising that cutting-edge use of technology is making headway in an affluent suburb such as Clear Creek, the home of NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, but it is no guarantee that such methods will be accepted by everyone.
"Parents don't always want to risk their child's future on a program that is not proven," Horn said.
Other times, it's the schools providing the resistance. One administrator from Hawaii related a story about a female student who, prevented by scheduling conflicts from registering for an AP course, resorted to computer hacking to get in. School officials were unsure whether to "reward her [ingenuity] or punish her."
For the Florida Virtual School, the "biggest competition" is the state's public schools, Ross said. "By law, they have to release them to us, but they don't want to lose the funding," since funding for a school is determined in part by the number of students who attend.
That hasn't stopped the Virtual School's massive growth. It has more than 800 full-time teachers, all certified in Florida and the vast majority holding at least three years of experience at a traditional school.
Some attendees said the theories advanced at the summit ignored reality.
"I think there is too much of an assumption that we can simply throw this out there and let kids choose," said one member audience who identified himself as a middle school teacher from Philadelphia. "Students don't always do what's best for themselves. Often they will hold onto tradition: 'Define what I need to know, tell me, and then I'll give it back to you.'"
Others argued that the vision of pro-technology advocates didn't go far enough.
"We haven't changed learning," said John Zook, adviser to the Ministry of Education, United Arab Emirates, during one session. "I'd like to see us get rid of courses, and create classroom delivery models that are more about how we work in the real world."
This story, "Web 2.0 could play key role in schools of the future" was originally published by Computerworld.