Charter schools and virtual classrooms: Standing out from the pack

Education & Technology

While charter schools have enjoyed a surge of interest and support from the federal government, they must increasingly distinguish themselves from each other and the mainstream schools with which they compete. Mainstream public K12 schools are bound by sets of federal and state rules, many of which are set aside for charter schools, even though they remain publicly-funded, non-profit institutions. In exchange for this greater degree of autonomy, charter schools must attain certain outcomes and organize around guiding missions, principles, and practices that are substantially different from their mainstream counterparts. Through all of this, technology can play a vital role in advancing their special missions.

Charter schools can be focused on specific subject areas like STEM (science, technology, mathematics, and engineering) or the arts, while others attempt to take a different approach to education altogether. Such approaches might include open concept schools, different schedules, special classes for gifted students, collaborative study across curriculum areas, project-based learning, and so on. Charter schools have even been used to found some of the first online “virtual schools.”

The use of a virtual classroom, however, can go far beyond offering classes online…

Rather, virtual classroom tools can enable some of these new approaches outlined above, as well as providing opportunities for charter schools to innovate and serve students in ways that mainstream schools often cannot. For example, depending upon the state in which they were chartered, charter schools may not be subject to the same collective bargain rules as their non-charter counterparts. A subject matter expert from outside the school could then be contracted to teach a class, while in mainstream schools, all teaching must usually be completed by licensed teachers employed by the school district. What if students wanted to learn Arabic, for example? Wouldn’t it be better for them to learn in a virtual classroom from a native speaker in Egypt than not be able to learn that particular language because a school only had Latin, Spanish, and French teachers?

Similarly, requiring teachers to capture their lessons in a virtual classroom for later review by students or to prepare flipped classroom-style lessons to better support project-based learning during the school day would often have to be negotiated as a change in working conditions in most schools. Where these rules are more flexible in charter schools, teachers could even go so far as to pre-record specific lessons and make time for staff development or lesson studies during the regular school week, with students completing their lessons independently in study halls.

No matter if you are absent or busy you can attend all the classes you missed!!

Imagine being able to tout the fact that all lessons at “Chris Dawson’s Charter School” are recorded to accommodate absent students or those away at games and competitions? For a school focused on the arts, letting students travel easily or be flexible in the timing of their classes during performances and related preparations? I say imagine because those of us who have taught in mainstream public schools know that this sort of practice would be exceptionally difficult to implement in the current paradigm. For many charter schools, it would require some planning and small investments in technology, but otherwise would be very possible.

The majority of charter schools have waiting lists and resort to lotteries to choose which students can fill highly sought after slots. Virtual classrooms have the potential to both open the schools to more students but also to keep class sizes smaller. Teachers obviously have limits to the numbers of students they can teach effectively. It isn’t possible to give timely feedback on 120 essays or exams completed by 30 students in a physical classroom and 90 more attending classes online, nor is it possible to effectively engage students in science lab exercises online. However, it is possible to effectively teach physical classes of 27 or 28 while allowing a small number of highly motivated, homebound, or homeschooled students to attend classes online. In the same way, charter schools could deliver lecture format classes on more basic materials to
large groups of students using 1:1 devices or computer labs and a virtual classroom, freeing more teachers to work with smaller sections in project-based classes or seminars, even though most K12 school buildings can’t accommodate large lectures.

What?? WizIQ has also a similar kind of “time turner” device used in Harry Potter 3!!                 

My 9-year old has recently begun reading the Harry Potter series of books. In Book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, one particularly bright student is given a “time turner”. This device allows her to reverse time and thereby take multiple classes that are scheduled for the same time. While even WizIQ’s virtual classroom, with its slick new features rolling out as we head into the new year, can’t turn back time, capturing lessons and allowing virtual interactions with teachers outside of regularly scheduled classes would enable gifted students to increase their course load and either graduate early or pursue advanced studies in a particular topic. Again, the engagement of subject matter experts from outside the school would also allow them to extend their learning beyond what a school can offer. This sort of flexibility is not something that most mainstream schools can or will provide, but charter schools, especially those focused on differentiated instruction or gifted education, could certainly leverage virtual classroom tools for the benefit of gifted and talented students.

And the list goes on…

Charter schools have inherent flexibility that allows them to explore new possibilities and seek out the most effective means of educating their students. This flexibility, in turn, lets them differentiate themselves from other public schools and attract students who might not otherwise be well-served in the public education system. Although charter schools have many tools at their disposal, virtual classrooms are particularly well suited to enhancing, extending, and advancing their missions.

Christopher Dawson

Chris is a full-time online teacher since then, focusing on teaching Business English to Adults. Rather than pushing the boundaries of technology, Chris seeks to simplify the online learning process by focusing on authentic human connections as a way to make online learning accessible for learners of all ages.

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