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Computerworld - 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.