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Will cyber-school ever really be out for the summer?

Posting in Education

Social networking applications promise to transform cyberlearning, as schools around the nation reevaluate teaching methods.

Full confession: I was that annoying person in your high school home room class who actually really hated to see the school year end each June. I got over it quickly once I hit the pool and my bicycle, but many years later (I won't say how many), I still feel really nostalgic when school starts back up around Labor Day.

So, it has been with some skepticism and reservation that I have followed the cyberlearning movement, especially as it pertains to the elementary and high school level. Because for me, learning was just as much about how I related and competed with the other students as it was about what the teacher was saying or having us do. I just did some poking around the U.S. Department of Education stats list and the latest figures I can find for adoption are way back from 2005, when approximately 37 percent of public school districts indicated they were using distance learning technology. Approximately 10 percent of all schools nationwide were using these tools, although 71 percent of those districts planned to do so in the future. I think you'll agree that those numbers are relatively low.

So let me explain something: my skepticism about cyberlearning has had nothing to do with my faith in the idea that children will and want to catch on and use technology to learn about things. This presentation from last fall (The New Information Ecology) does a great job of detailing how teens, in particular, consume information. And, perhaps more importantly, how they retain it. Technology is a big part of it (video, etc.)

The development that might change things, however, is the application of social networking and social media applications to these applications -- by both teachers and students. That's because they key in something that I believe very strong: the best learning -- in-person or in cyberspace -- is interactive.

Of course, the United States is also poised to make huge investments in the technology infrastructure of learning, although who knows how fast that will happen. There's a big emphasis on the possibilities posed by virtualization technology and the cloud, though, which might help districts find the money they need to invest without further taxing their communities.

I spent some time talking about the philosophy of online learning with the founder of Knewton, which is applying social media technology to the process of test prep for some of the standardized tests you need to get into college or graduate school (SAT, LMAT, GMAT and such). According to Jose Ferreira, founder and CEO of Knewton, the online environment is particularly suited to this sort of instruction. There are a number of reasons why, not the least of which is that the experts in test prep are scattered all over the country. The classes combine live video chat with adaptive learning sample questions.

Jay Cherry, a 26-year-old who will be starting at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in the fall, says that compared to the test preparation experiences he had face-to-face during high school, his experience with a Knewton class was more interesting and engaging. That's because he could interact both with other classmates and with some of the assistant professors and instructors supporting the course. "The entire time the professor is teaching, you can have dialogue about it," he says. "My age group is used to online learning."

Of course, to me, the more urgent priority right now is K-12 education. Anyone who lives in or near New Jersey, as example, knows that taxpayers have had enough. One can sense that we are balancing on the precipice of a major shift in the education process.

Among the companies that you might want to investigate a bit are Dreambox, which is owned by the founder of Netflix through his relationship with the Charter Fund. Dreambox is focused explicitly on helping K-3 children with math. Another company attacking the interactive online space with a focus on K-12 environments is Time to Know, which hails from Israel.

The video gives you an idea of how a couple of schools in Texas are integrating the technology into their classrooms:

T2K: a Paradigm Shift in K-12 Education from Time To Know on Vimeo.

Once upon a time, I think the reason that school was out of session in the summer was because children were needed at home to help with running farms. But as our world becomes more urbanized, is that a realistic or productive schedule? Consider what they do in England now, with terms staggered around the year, followed by the necessary "play" breaks that we need to remember to give our children. Cyberlearning will definitely rewrite the rules for our education system. That's likely to happen sooner rather than later. Are you ready to help write the rules?

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure