My school is shortly opening a new Maths Centre. It is an architectural wonder, marrying glass and open spaces with century old corridors and wooden panelling. It will be a state of the art facility which no doubt will raise the profile and marketability of the school, which is focusing on the national imperative of Maths and Science Education. It has made me think a great deal recently about architecture and schools, and in particular the architecture of the virtual school.
In the near future I believe that all, or almost all schools in South Africa will have a virtual component. In some schools this virtual component may only be an Internet connection in a computer room. Others are likely to have fully fledged e-schools, supporting hybrid courses, offering fully online courses and possibly even online student bodies in addition to, or even replacing those who attend the bricks and mortar campus.
The Virtual School, however, is not as easy to visualise as a sparkling new swimming pool, artificial hockey pitch or gleaming new Maths centre. It is, well, virtual … it sits somewhere in the ether, unseen and for many teachers, and some students, forgotten. And yet it is no less important a piece of school architecture than any of the brick buildings that make up a school. Indeed, as time passes, I believe it will become more and more important. Not just because of the increasing use of technology in education, but because online education will itself become an everyday modality of learning within the K-12 schooling environment. In some states in America it is a requirement that students take an online course, and many states have virtual schools at state or district level.
Even where schools do not adopt widespread online practises, limited virtual interventions will still matter. So what does an architecture of the virtual school look like? This question is often asked from the perspective of which Learning Management System to adopt, what type of network to install, whether Interactive White Boards are used, or whether to adopt BYOD. These are important questions, but not quite what I mean by architecture. I believe there should be three broad pillars supporting the architecture of the virtual school: largely corresponding to the questions of What, Where and When.
The What concerns the design and infrastructure of the platform. Each school will have a different solution to suit their own particular needs, but all schools should be concerned about using the architecture of their platform to maximise their impact on teaching and learning and on their marketability and corporate image. A virtual school environment is every bit as much a corporate statement as the school buildings themselves. Some schools will develop limited online solutions to support learning in the classroom, but others will no doubt go far further.
Virtual platforms can be used to create purely online course content, and many schools may make it a requirement for their students to take certain courses online, either for remedial, advanced programme or learning extension purposes. For example courses on plagiarism, copyright or citation may well be tackled online. Or perhaps online learning may be used to support subjects with limited student enrolment: allowing Latin, for example, to be offered across several schools, maximizing resources by sharing a teacher. Some schools may band together to develop a platform, much as Edx, Coursera or Futurelearn has done at tertiary level. Or schools may deploy their expertise by reaching out to students beyond the campus, who attend only online, supplementing lessons at their own schools, syndicating teaching resources by creating virtual campuses which support learning by both their own day students and performing outreach functions and creating an additional virtual student body.
There is likely to be something of an arms race in which top schools seek to attract students via their online platforms or to fulfil outreach imperatives. Virtual schools may also be used to try to bridge the digital divide n creative ways, and top schools and teachers are likely to be used to spearhead these initiatives.
The Where, to my mind, is the most crucial question, although the easy answer will always be anywhere. The virtual school has a key affordance, it’s ability to bridge the divide between school and home. Students, teachers and parents clearly need to be able to access educational functionality from any location. But anywhere crucially opens up vistas and opportunities. Schools can not only let the world in, exposing students to content, contact, expertise and mentorship from anywhere in the world, but can also open its doors to the world. To my mind we can certainly expect to see top schools opening up to virtual student bodies in addition to their face-to-face enrolment, using their brand to attract students, just as Edx represents a virtual extension programme to universities like Harvard.
The When, with its obvious reply of anytime, offers its own tantalizing glimpse into a school where greater personalization is made possible through greater flexibility. The classroom itself may not be a confined by its walls and desks as it appears once we start to envisage the invisible architectural layer of the virtual school which will increasingly weave itself into the fabric of everyday learning. The Flipped Classroom methodology gives us some insight into the changes which are likely to sweep through schools in the next twenty years or so as the implications of twenty-first century innovation start to gain traction.
Classrooms are made they way they are because teaching is the way it is. But schools will start to look very different if we do not see a need for groups of age cohorts to move around at regular intervals to meet with subject specialists who sit at desks and write at boards to explain things! What if, for example we start to imagine a school based instead on communities of practice, or on project based learning? Classrooms may not be the most efficient way of delivering that kind of learning! Our classrooms currently look pretty much the same as they looked a hundred years ago, but I think this will change very rapidly as the affordances of technology start to open up new possibilities and ways of ding things,
The architecture of the Virtual School, in short, is about to blow the architecture of the traditional school right out of the water!