The Florida High School (FHS) exists on the internet, a virtual institution of learning, providing an alternative path to traditional classroom education for obtaining a high school diploma. The changes heralded by the FHS cut across administration, student services, instruction, finance, state policy, logistics, physical plant, and maintenance–essentially every operational area of educational institutions.

Historically two seemingly inescapable boundaries have shaped traditional schools: time and place. Erase these barriers through the power of technology, and processes and events inherently must change.

For example, performance rather than attendance becomes a critical factor for funding consideration. Registration of students is no longer limited to district, state, or even national boundaries–necessitating policies and procedures to allow a geographically dispersed student body.

Even buildings themselves are not required for students taking virtual classes. (One of the goals of the FHS, for example, was to expand the capacity of current buildings by changing attendance patterns.)

In a virtual classroom environment, teachers can no longer play the “sage on the stage” when conducting class–there is no stage, the class is participating asynchronously, and the nature of the technology facilitates collaborative discovery, problem-solving and production–in FHS’ case all mapped to the Sunshine State Standards mandated in Florida.

What Florida and many other educational entities have learned is that the internet and associated software provide us with innovative ways to address the educational needs of our communities. It’s about time.

Technology has been promising revolutionary improvements in teaching and learning for nearly two decades. And while every vendor and researcher can point to success stories, the overall impact of technology hasn’t produced the kind of dramatic effects imagined from the outset.

A long, winding trail

The first full decade of technology introductions to education (1980-1989) was marked by all the difficulties of a nascent industry. Fragmented purposes, limited functions, isolated products and users, and an absence of success models all impeded progress.

With the internet, innovative approaches to accessing, using, generating, and sharing content have been developed. Increased communications among members of learning communities with outreach to and feedback from other communities and individuals has become a reality.

By making data available to all, the internet has given educators access to high standards of performance that are linked to multiple forms of assessment and open reporting. Professional development, too, has benefited from the internet as it allows for the sharing of best practices, online mentoring, and just-in-time access.

IBM, with 22 participating districts and states, has been investigating the nature of these possibilities through its Reinventing Education grant program since 1994. While solutions development and field implementations are still in process, several preliminary outcomes already seem apparent:

  1. Research into the early implementations of technology in schools indicated the need for teachers to drive the integration of technology into daily instruction. The nature of the internet enables this process, through its linking of content, communications, and productivity capabilities.

  2. Professional development requirements span all technology-based activities. The internet-based solutions developed through the grants have all been supported by internet-based professional development activities.

  3. The success of technology in public education isn’t necessarily measured best by observing standardized test scores. The goals of the grant participants vary from establishing reliability in the assessment of student portfolios, to the ability to link and query disparate administrative data base systems, to the need to facilitate workflow processes in meeting special education requirements.

In addition to the indicators we are seeing from the Reinventing Education program, other trends are combining to suggest the time has come not only when technology can begin to have the impact we all expected, but when technology will inevitably penetrate public education, and the only question left is how we will maximize its value.