By andrei Blakely
BALTIMORE – Classroom walls soon may be computer screens for some Maryland students using the new “virtual school” program unanimously approved Wednesday by the State Board of Education.
A fully developed Web-site, scheduled for the drawing board early next year, would give school systems the ability to educate students who cannot attend classes. The site, to be in use in 2002, would particularly help teen parents, homebound students, accelerated students and students who work and can only study overnight.
The Board of Education accepted a recommendation from a study group on Internet-based learning commissioned by the State Department of Education. The 21-member group made up of statewide school officials worked for six months to determine the merits of a Web-based program.
The primary obstacle to the program is providing funding, with the exact cost yet to be determined.
“Our responsibility as a policy-making board is to determine the feasibility (of funding the program). The governor is oriented toward education,” said Philip S. Benzil, board president.
The program, it is hoped, would follow progress made in other states. Florida’s virtual school program, which started five years ago with $200,000, now has a budget of $6.1 million.
The committee’s recommendation centers on providing a coordinated approach to developing the Web-based school and encouraging school jurisdictions to explore Web-delivered courses.
The Internet is a useful tool for school systems because it is interactive and maintains the student’s attention level more than the one-way instruction of a television, said Jerry Weast, superintendent of schools in Montgomery County and chairman of the committee.
“You can’t substitute for face-to-face interaction. The problem is that you can’t stand in the way of equity and accessibility,” he said.
Some board members were concerned whether the virtual school can work with many of the problems school systems are facing, like the so-called digital divide between technology-filled and technology-deficient schools.
Others questioned the impact it could have on a student’s learning.
“I worry about it being used just because it is something (new) to use,” said Walter Sondheim, school board member.
He recalled one of his favorite courses taken years ago: “To imagine it taught over a machine is beyond me,” he said.
The program is not going to immediately solve problems such as the teacher shortage or needed classroom space, said Weast, but it could help.
In Maryland, eight school jurisdictions already have some Web-based program.
“Students go to the Internet just as much as they would go to the library,” said Aaron Merki, student representative on the board. “There are mixed emotions. Students are first to grasp new ideas and concepts. Students are not afraid of change.”
“I think this is the wave of the future, but we have to make sure it is used right,” said Reginald L. Dunn, board member.