Several years of legislative effort for me culminated on January 3 when Governor Patrick signed legislation authorizing online public schools.
Since arriving in the legislature, I have been working to expand the use of online technology in public schools. Thanks especially to the able leadership of two successive chairs of the Education Committee, Rep. Marty Walz and Rep. Alice Peisch, I can now report an important step forward.
The new law authorizes the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to solicit proposals for the formation of “Commonwealth Virtual Schools.” Initially, only school districts and educational collaboratives will be allowed to make proposals.
The new law defines a Commonwealth Virtual School as a “public school operated by a board of trustees whose teachers primarily teach from a remote location using the internet or other computer-based methods and whose students are not required to be located at the physical premises of the school.”
Certainly, a fully online school is a bold concept and, although many other states have already opened virtual schools, it is very significant for Massachusetts to finally embrace the concept. However, in practice, the change may be modest, because these new schools will serve relatively small segments of students. In fact, the legislation specifically limits total enrollment in all Commonwealth Virtual Schools to two percent of the statewide student population.
Fully online schools meet the needs of students who have particular reasons for not being able to physically attend regular schools and students who have need of particular programs that the schools are not offering. These students may include, for example, full-time athletes, students with medical needs, over-age children, and exceptionally gifted children. The legislation requires proposed schools to define how they will meet the needs of their target group of children.
Most children will be better served by hybrid models — models that blend online learning with classroom instruction and one-on-one coaching. Hybrid models sometimes involve no change in the basic daily routine of going to school, but they nonetheless can amount to a complete transformation of the instructional process.
In a hybrid model, teachers spend less time imparting content by lecturing. Students can get content from engaging short videos. Then students can drill and test their learning in online systems that deliver questions appropriate to their level of understanding.
With hybrid models, we can better differentiate instruction to meet the needs of different students. Students can be watching different content and taking different tests. Equally important, with lecturing and grading reduced, teachers can spend more time on the personal coaching that can be most motivating for children.
I’ve been visiting schools across my district and I have been thrilled by how some teachers are reaching for new uses of technology. We need to figure out how to better support teachers as they work to change our educational model. One prospect, specifically contemplated in the new legislation, is that Commonwealth Virtual Schools might offer online courses to students attending other public schools. Additionally, the new legislation requires the state to develop, as a resource for school districts, a list of online courses aligned with the state’s curriculum standards.
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