Virtual Learning Education Consulting Firm

Barbara Harbula, PH.D.
Online Learning Consultant

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Barb's Vision of Schools of the Future (as written for a paper in 2005)

A Vision of Schools of the Future

To understand the possible roles online schooling could have in the next decade, close your eyes and envision this scenario:

A student starts his week at home by logging into his computer from his bedroom utilizing the portal set up by the district, which provides an individualized program for him. He electronically submits his homework and checks for the assignments that are due with his individual learning plan. He checks the classes he will have this week, and signs up for any hands-on activities, proctored testing, or face to face classes that he needs to attend. His body clock and learning style are matched to the variety of times that these classes are offered in different schools. Transportation to arrive at those classes are planned, as well as time in the gym for his daily workout with a personal trainer. His physical exercise as he uses the equipment is tracked on his medical (Holden, 2004) Smart Card which is submitted to the nurses office, and if necessary to his doctor. In addition, he plans to attend service activities, social activities, or sports while he is at school. The student knows in advance the location of each of his classes, and will not need to waste time visiting a locker, or a homeroom. The resultant schedule is downloaded onto his PDA, worn on his wrist, or incorporated with his cell phone for easy access once at school.

The student's PDA has tracked the location of his bus, and notifies him when it is a mile away from the house, so that he can meet it on time. He has no books to carry, his PDA is the only school supply needed. The bus is tracked as it travels throughout the neighborhood, so that administration knows where it is and which students have already been picked up.

As the student enters the school building, his PDA automatically logs him into the wireless LAN, and identifies him on either the wireless or Ethernet network. He text messages any friends that he plans to meet for lunch, and makes plans for other social events.

The student's homework, submitted to his teacher, has been graded by the computer or the teacher, as he was enroute, so that when the student walks through the door to attend the hands-on activities for the class, the teacher can give immediate feedback, and guides the student to the next task. The teacher can also see at a glance, which students have met the criteria for the task, and which need extra help or an alternative activity to be able to master the content or process, and can plan accordingly. Most classes will involve time to collaborate with peers in planning, researching, and presenting solutions to authentic tasks dealing with the specified curriculum. As classes or academic meetings progress through the day, the student has utilized the PDA to access information through the wireless lab from any resources, such as the local museum, or government agency, or taken an online poll that aided the discussion in the class, or to take notes on what is happening in the class. New assignments are automatically loaded onto the PDA for viewing at home in a comfortable environment.

Because the student has taken care of the reading and writing activities at home in a comfortable environment, most of the hands-on or group curricular activities can be completed in several hours, so the student has finished the classroom activities, and can move to the holistic activities, such as the social, physical, emotional, or service activities mentioned above, after lunch. The classrooms are now free for students who chose to complete the holistic activities in the morning, to attend curricular-oriented classes. All students leave the building with new assignments already loaded on the PDA, and can work on the research, reading, and writing parts of the assignments in their own homes, while watching TV or listening to their choice of music.
This scenario might seem like it will be a headache for administrators. However, at the touch of a button, any student in the school can be located, as their PDA's will have GPS software included (remember the earlier scenario of tracking the bus). Busses, too, will always be locatable. The computer will arrange schedules, and students will have input into their schedule, so if they are late risers, they can choose to attend classes in a building that offers academic afternoon classes. In addition, all testing data, personal records, school data, and district level data will be available for school wide decisions, or budgeting questions. Asynchronous training modules will deliver Staff Development, as envisioned by several researchers (James & Gerald, 2002; Treacy, 2002), giving the administrator a well trained staff, and less faculty meetings to attend. Delivery of faculty meetings occur in the same manner, and faculty and administrators attend at their convenience, in their classrooms or from home.

Teachers will be freed from record keeping because the individualized student curriculum will be administered by the computer system (it's all done by the database). They will be free, to do what they do best - guide students through their own learning process by offering alternative lessons for just those students who need them. The curriculum software will identify and track student progress, allowing students to advance at their own pace, without being limited to a nine month learning pace. If a student chooses to work through the summer to complete coursework, then that student could be finishing school earlier, thus joining the workforce or academia earlier. This will save districts money in the long run, since students may not need to spend 12 complete years in the system.

While this scenario seems futuristic, and technically a distance away, now is the time that changes could occur to lead schools as they undergo the coming paradigm shifts. Virtual Schools may be catalysts in these shifts.

Challenge: Can Virtual Schools be Agents of Change??

According to researchers (Fulton & Kober, 2002; Eng, 2003), educators should be asking several questions about virtual schools, including how the schools are preparing students for life, work and citizenship. Since current schools were formed on the factory system, which is less prevalent today, and future workers will be utilizing the technology and online world mentioned above, Virtual Schools could become the medium enabling students to develop the needed skills for the millenium work world. Isenhour (2000) points out that online learning encourages development of planning and coordination skills not usually required in regular classroom collaboration. While fine-tuning their curriculums to take advantage of this medium, virtual schools could be leaders in changing brick and mortar school curriculums and pedagogy.

Another question concerns universal access and free cost (Fulton, 2002). Although the method of utilizing state funding for virtual students is currently under fire in some states, utilizing those funds provides students with access at home for students who would not normally have the funding for access. Therefore, virtual schools can be seen as ways to lessen the digital divide.

Developing social cohesion and shared culture in online courses can be challenging (Fulton, 2002). The critics of Virtual Schools, who worry about virtual students not developing social skills, voice this concern. As the schools answer the critics, they may be developing policies that will prevent social isolation and encourage shared cultures. Indeed, the history of online learning in elementary schools started with such cultural projects as those developed by organizations like Kidlink and I*EARN, and was supported by Merryfield (2002) who called educators to explore multiple perspectives, worldviews, and examine different points of view on an event or topic.


Along with Fulton (2002), the United States Department of Education, calls for public accountability and responsiveness, and identifies virtual schools as models of reform. The USDE (2002) report calls for investment in research to determine the effectiveness of teaching and learning online. This investment in research needs to occur before public schools start following the Pied Piper into that fictitious "joyous land", now known as cyberspace!


Bell, S. (2001). Web-based Utilities for Learning and Collaboration in the Classroom. Syllabus Magazine: Technology for Higher Education (7/1/2001).

Browning, Robert (1888). The Pied Piper of Hamlin. Edward Evans Limited. London, England. Retrieved July 3, 2004 from

Cicognani, A. (2000). Concept Mapping as a Collaborative Tool for Enhanced Online Learning. Educational Technology & Society, 3(3).

Cifuentes, L. S., Yu-Chih Doris. (2001). Teaching and Learning Online: A Collaborative Between U.S. and Taiwanese Students. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, Summer 2001; 33(4), 456.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting (2003). CONNECTED TO THE FUTURE: A Report on Children's Internet Use. Retrieved July 1, 2004, from .

Eng, P. (2003). Virtual School Daze: Online tech offers new choices in education. Retrieved 9/16/2003, from

Fulton, K., & Kober, N. (2002). Preserving principles of public education in an online world: What policymakers should be asking about virtual schools. Paper presented at the Virtual High Schools: Changing Schools, Enduring Principles, Washington, D.C.

Hammonds, L., & Reising, B. (1998). The Virtual High School. Clearing House, 71(6), 324, 322 p.

Holden, H. (2004). Printed Optical Waveguides: The Next Interconnect. CircuiTree Troy, 17(2), 54, 53 pgs.

Isenhour, P. L., Carroll, J.M., Neale, D.C., Rosson, M.B., & Dunlap, D.R. (2000). The Virtual School: An integrated collaborative environment for the classroom, Retrieved June 2004 from

James, J. W., & Bailey, Gerald D. (2002). Online Professional Development: a customized approach for technology leaders. (2002 ed.). Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Kalmon, S., & Watson, John. (2002). Moving Mountains to Ensure Equal Access To High Quality Learning: Findings and Recommendations of the Colorado E-Learning Task Force. Colorado Online Learning Task Force for Colorado Department of Education. Retrieved 01/17/03 from, 1- 49.

MacDonald, J. (2001). On-Line Learning: A Radical Pedagogy? Adults Learning, 12(5).

Merryfield, M. M. (2002). The Difference a Global Educator Can Make. Educational Leadership, 60(2), 18-21.

Russo, A. (2001). Online Coursework. School Administrator, 58(no. 9), 6-48.

Schulz, B. (2003). Surfing the cyberwave of reform: Evaluating K-12 virtual schools. Paper presented at the E-Learn 2003, Phoenix, Arizona.

Taylor, S. (2002). Education online: Off course or on track? Community College Week, Vol. 14(Issue 20).

Thomas, W. (2002). Virtual learning and charter schools: Issues and potential impact. Retrieved 01/15/03 from Southern Regional Education Board at

Treacy, B. K., Glenn; Petersen, Kirsten. (2002). Successful online professional development: using community-based train-the-trainers programs, EdTech Leaders Online is spreading online professional development throughout the United States and learning some valuable lessons along the way. Learning & Leading with Technology, 30(1), 42 (46).

USDE. (2002). Executive summary: Virtual schools forum (No. Draft). Denver, CO: United States Department of Education:Virtual Schools Forum.



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