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Virtual High

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This fall, high school students in Hudson, Massachusetts, can take microbiology from an instructor in Pennsylvania. Students in Fremont, California can study statistics with a North Carolina teacher. And seniors in Lumberton, North Carolina, can take part in a bioethics symposium offered by teachers in Ohio. Welcome to "Virtual High School," a unique educational experiment linking students via the Internet with teachers hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

The Hudson public schools and the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational research and development firm in nearby Concord, launched the project this fall with a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Although states such as Utah have created Internet-based classes for students, Virtual High School is believed to be the first program to provide courses nationally via the massive computer network. "There's a lot of interest in the Internet, but we really have not maximized the capability it offers," says Sheldon Berman, superintendent of the Hudson schools. "This offers us a way to make maximum use of the technology and to enrich our curriculum in a way that is personable and accessible to students."

The district and the consortium last year recruited 28 schools from 10 states to take part in Virtual High. They include a small rural school in Washington state, large urban schools in New Jersey, and religious schools in Pennsylvania. All told, some 550 students are taking one of the 30 or so elective courses. Three corporate partners--3Com Corp., Lotus Development Corp., and Motorola Inc.--have provided equipment and technical help.

Ray Rose, director of the Concord Consortium's educational technology lab, notes that the courses are not intended to duplicate the schools' offerings but to provide "things they would have a tougher time doing." Classes range from Advanced Placement statistics to one called "Earth 2525: A Time Traveler's Guide to Planet Earth."

Organizers say the courses, which are restricted to 25 or fewer students, are more like college seminars than traditional high school classes. Students do not, for example, work in "real time." Instead, they log on to the classes at their convenience. In place of lectures, students get assignments to tackle on their own or with other students. They then post their work on the computer or take part in carefully orchestrated on-line discussions.

Many of the text materials for the courses will be provided to the students on paper. In addition, some instructors will ship students tackle boxes containing soldering irons, bread boards, or other equipment that students might need to conduct assigned experiments. "I think the greatest benefit is that we are actually preparing our students to learn how to learn," says Linda Hammonds, a site coordinator for the program at Lumberton High School in North Carolina.

Hammonds acknowledges, however, that without face-to-face interaction, it may be tough for teachers to keep their students engaged in the classes. As a sort of guidance counselor and technical adviser for the program at her school, she tries to keep tabs on participating students' progress and work with the teacher offering a virtual course there.

Hudson superintendent Berman expects up to 100 schools to join the program over the next five years. But he says the technology will never preempt core high school programs. "You still need the social context of the regular high school," he explains.

--Debra Viadero

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