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Making It Work

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In the beginning was the idea.

For administrators at the Laurel Springs School, a private K-12 school in Ojai, Calif., 90 minutes' drive north of Los Angeles, the idea was to make an entire precollegiate curriculum available on the Internet so that students could study from home--whether home was in Tulsa or Thailand.

But between the idea and the execution lay the details. And the many technical, logistical, and human problems Laurel Springs encountered in linking home and school by technology are far from unique to that school.

Paper-and-pencil correspondence courses had long been a fixture of the school's curriculum, and electronic communications were expected to provide additional dimensions to learning.

But teaching whole courses on the Internet is a radical idea even for a private school that espouses a fairly unusual educational philosophy: All of its students are on independent-study programs of their own choosing. And many of them live outside California.

Marilyn Mosley, the school's director, says the Internet course was designed to meet several goals. One was to link electronically a student body that spans the globe. Another was to supplement the few reference materials often found in local libraries. A third was to help prepare students for a world that depends on technology.

The lessons Laurel Springs learned in implementing the pilot course for 40 students are broadly applicable to any effort to link school and home through telecommunications.

First, "virtual courses" are a valuable supplement to, not a replacement for, traditional learning. Although it is possible, "we certainly don't advocate all on-line learning," Mosley says.

The school also found that parent support was critical. Parents need to be taught such basics as how to get on line or how to get their modems to work. "What we did for our parents was allow them to enroll in a course called Introduction to the Internet," Mosley explains. "At first, we only opened it up to our students, but then we had a number of moms say, 'Well, we'd like to take that, too.' "

Getting teachers on line and helping them to incorporate the technology into their teaching was also important. "Many of them said, 'It'll cost me too much money in on-line fees' or 'I'm not ready yet because it's going to take too much of our time,' " Mosley explains.

Teachers also benefited from taking the introductory Internet course, she says. And teachers were asked to help design the on-line courses.

The school also had to come to grips with technological realities.

Lee Gordanier, the school's technology administrator, says that schools considering such an initiative must ensure that home equipment is up-to-date. "Anything more than a couple of years old just isn't capable of interacting with these incredible new languages that are out there on the Internet," he says.

The school also has a contract with a private provider of Internet access because students rapidly use up basic time on commercial on-line services, he adds. The provider also can screen out sexually explicit materials available on line.

Finally, the educators had to deal with the constantly changing nature of the Internet. Resources that might be found at one electronic address one day may well be somewhere else the next, often without any warning. "It's not like creating a curriculum from a book," Mosley notes. "There's a fluidity to the World Wide Web that's exciting but kind of frustrating."

Public School Problems

Some stereotypes about computer-based instruction also have fallen by the wayside at Laurel Springs. For example, books are often, but not always, superior to electronic media as teaching tools. "There are many children who learn better on line, particularly some young boys," Mosley contends.

And girls are not necessarily adverse to technology. "I found that girls don't like to 'surf the net'; they don't like to hang out in front of the computer and play," Mosley says. "But they're much more purpose-oriented than boys. They have more of a focus, and they'll use it as a tool."

Moreover, conventional wisdom dictates that today's students have vastly more experience with computers than their teachers. That's not always true, Mosley says. "We get kids who were in public high schools and many of them have had little time at a computer lab in their school," she says.

Public school administrators face some additional difficulties in developing electronic school-to-home connections. Unlike at Laurel Springs, where students own their computers, public schools usually furnish equipment, raising questions of liability should the machine be lost, stolen, or damaged.

The Crown Point, Ind., School Corp. provides every 4th and 5th grader with a home computer as part of the statewide Buddy Project. Jeff Iacobazzi, the executive assistant to the superintendent, says the best way to deal with such issues is to adapt existing policies on school-supplied uniforms or band instruments, which often are covered by homeowner's insurance policies. Still, he adds, no policy addresses every eventuality.

"We had a problem where a truck crashed into a house and destroyed the computer," he says. "That provoked a hissing contest between the homeowners and the auto-insurance companies."

And when a household cat so severely soiled a computer keyboard that it could not be recycled to another family, he jokes, the incident "fell into the category of 'an act of God.' "

The resources mentioned in this story can be reached at the following Internet addresses:
Laurel Springs School:http://www.Laurelsprings.com

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