GWU puts its name on Web-based high school

Lab-style op­er­a­tion an ex­per­i­ment in learn­ing and teach­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY DANIEL DE VISE

Ge­orge Washington Uni­ver­sity has opened a pri­vate col­lege-prepara­tory high school that will op­er­ate en­tirely on­line, one of the nation’s first “vir­tual” sec­ondary schools to be af­fil­i­ated with a ma­jor re­search uni­ver­sity.

The open­ing of a lab­o­ra­tory-style school un­der the ban­ner of a pres­ti­gious uni­ver­sity gen­er­ally counts as a ma­jor event among par­ents of the col­lege-bound. The Ge­orge Washington Uni­ver­sity On­line High School, a part­ner­ship with the on­line learn­ing com­pany K12 Inc., is com­pet­ing with brick-and-mor­tar prep schools and with a small but grow­ing com­mu­nity of ex­per­i­men­tal on­line schools at­tached to ma­jor uni­ver­si­ties.

On­line learn­ing may be the next log­i­cal step in the evo­lu­tion of uni­ver­sity “ lab” schools, an on­go­ing ex­per­i­ment in ped­a­gogy. On­line in­struc­tion holds the po­ten­tial to tran­scend the fac­tory model of tra­di­tional pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, al­low­ing stu­dents to learn at their own pace. In the ideal on­line class­room, no les­son is ever too fast or too slow, and no one ever falls be­hind.

But it’s not for ev­ery­one. It’s un­clear how ado­les­cents will fare in an on­line school, an aca­demic model that typ­i­cally re­quires stu­dents to take charge of their own learn­ing. On­line pro­grams are bet­ter es­tab­lished among ca­reer

ori­ented col­leges serv­ing adults.

“It takes a lot of ded­i­ca­tion to get your­self up early in the morn­ing, be­cause you don’t have a bell ring­ing in the hall­way to tell you your classes are start­ing,” said McKenna Tucker, 16, a sopho­more at the new school who lives in Ten­nessee.

Classes started Tues­day with 16 stu­dents study­ing in nine states, none of them lo­cal. There are plans to en­roll more stu­dents and add a 12th grade in fall. An­nual tu­ition is $9,995. Many of the first stu­dents, in­clud­ing Tucker, are chil­dren of K12 em­ploy­ees. The pri­vate com­pany, based in Hern­don, will op­er­ate the school, and the uni­ver­sity will over­see and study it.

“Whether it ac­tu­ally is su­pe­rior, and whether it works for all kids, some kids or most kids, that’s a re­search ques­tion we don’t have an an­swer to yet,” said Michael Feuer, dean of the uni­ver­sity’s Grad­u­ate School of Ed­u­ca­tion and Hu­man Devel­op­ment. “ This project is go­ing to be some­thing that con­trib­utes to that body of knowl­edge.”

The lat­est fed­eral data show en­roll­ment in com­puter-based dis­tance learn­ing grew from 317,070 in the 2003 aca­demic year to 506,950 in 2005 among pub­lic schools. On­line high schools have opened in Michi­gan, Ari­zona, Wis­con­sin, Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia, among other states. Some are char­ter schools, pub­lic but gov­erned by in­de­pen­dent boards.

Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity in 2006 opened the first on­line high school for gifted stu­dents, ex­ploit­ing the po­ten­tial of on­line in­struc­tion to al­low ad­vanced stu­dents to work ahead of their peers or study ma­te­rial not cov­ered in tra­di­tional schools.

The new GWU school is os­ten­si­bly a com­peti­tor, al­though it is not be­ing mar­keted as a school for the gifted.

K12 says it of­fers more than 100 cus­tom-de­signed cour­ses that range from reg­u­lar grade-level classes to hon­ors and col­lege-level Ad­vanced Place­ment in­struc­tion. Stu­dents may choose con­cen­tra­tions in lib­eral arts, sci­ence and technology or busi­ness and en­trepreneur­ship.

“What we’re look­ing for are hard­work­ing, mo­ti­vated, in­ter­est­ing kids,” said Bar­bara Bruegge­mann, the head of school.

Stu­dents are taught in small on­line “vir­tual class­rooms” that, depend­ing on the les­son, might link them and their teacher by au­dio, video, text-mes­sage or email. There is no on­line gym or band, but school of­fi­cials say the cur­ricu­lum is flex­i­ble enough that stu­dents can eas­ily make time for ath­let­ics and arts.

On­line schools around the nation have pros­pered or per­ished largely on the strength of their pro­grams, just like tra­di­tional schools, said Tracy Gray, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Technology In­no­va­tion in Washington.

“We still don’t re­ally know enough about for whom this works, un­der what con­di­tions, and when does it work,” she said. But re­search sug­gests that on­line learn­ing is a safe choice for an am­bi­tious, col­lege-bound stu­dent likely to en­roll at the GWU school: “ Those stu­dents tend to be highly mo­ti­vated and self-di­rected,” she said.

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