'Virtual High School' Turns Students Nationwide Into Classmates

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When they sit down at their classroom computers this month, high school students in Hudson, Mass., will be able to take microbiology from an instructor in Pennsylvania. Some students in Fremont, Calif., will be studying statistics with a North Carolina teacher.

And seniors in Lumberton, N.C., will be taking a bioethics symposium from teachers in Ohio.

Classes such as these are possible through what is being billed as the first nationwide "Virtual High School"--a program that uses the Internet to connect students with teachers up to a continent away.

The Hudson public schools and the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational research and development firm in nearby Concord, Mass., launched the project. It is being financed with a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's technology-innovation challenge-grant program.

Some states, such as Utah, have created similar kinds of Internet-based classes. But Virtual High School is believed to be the first program linking schools across the country to provide courses via the massive computer network.

"There's a lot of interest in the Internet, but we really have not maximized the capability it offers," said Sheldon Berman, the 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 School. They include a small rural school in Washington state; large, ethnically diverse urban schools in New Jersey; and religious schools in Pennsylvania.

The project's three corporate partners--3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., Lotus Development Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., and Motorola Inc., of Schaumberg, Ill.--provide some equipment and technical expertise.

When Virtual High School opens this month, a total of 550 students are expected to take 30 elective courses through the program.

Wide Range of Classes

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

Organizers say the courses will be more like college seminars than traditional high school classes or satellite-based distance-learning courses. Students will not, for example, work in "real time." Instead, they will log on to the classes at their convenience.

And, in place of a lecture, students will be given problems to solve or assignments to do on their own or with other students. They will return to their computers to post their work or to take part in carefully orchestrated on-line discussions--activities often not possible in satellite classes that are beamed to 100 or more students at a time. Classes in Virtual High School are restricted to 25 or fewer students.

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 equipment, such as soldering irons or bread boards, that students might need to conduct assigned experiments.

"I think the greatest benefit is we are actually preparing our students to learn how to learn," said Linda Hammonds, a site coordinator for the program at Lumberton High School in the North Carolina town about 30 miles south of the border.

Keeping Engaged

But she acknowledged that without face-to-face interaction, making sure that students stay engaged in their computer-based classes could be a concern for teachers. As a sort of guidance counselor and technical adviser for the program at her school, Ms. Hammonds' job is to keep tabs on participating students' progress and to work with the teacher offering a virtual course there.

Mr. Berman expects that up to 100 schools will join the program over the next five years. But he said the technology will never pre-empt core high school programs.

"You still need the social context of the regular high school," he said.

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This article incorrectly described the location of Lumberton, N.C. The town is about 30 miles north of the South Carolina border.

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