Feb 12, 2013 (04:02 AM EST)
The Education Lab Inside My House

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Hello, I'm just settling in here as editor of InformationWeek Education, and I'm still learning.

Soon, I plan to be an expert, or at least more of one, learning just-in-time and in many ways teaching myself by seeking out the people I want to learn from. Will that not be the wave of the future, for more and more of us? Journalism is like never leaving school in some ways. It's life-long learning and the accumulation of provisional expertise, which one hopes leads to greater wisdom over time.

My new gig is not such a great departure from my prior one leading our coverage of social business and collaboration technologies, given that Web collaboration is an element of the online education trend in both higher education and K-12 schooling. However, the cast of characters and array of vendors is pretty different, and there are a lot of people I need to introduce myself to.

[ Online education gets pushback in other states. Online Education Policy Draws Fire In California. ]

One thing I bring to the job is a bit of experience. As I write this, my 12-year-old daughter, a virtual school student, is at the desk right next to mine in my home office, working on her computer with a set of headphones on. Actually, I just caught her watching something on YouTube when she was supposed to be doing schoolwork. (Back to work, kid!) In the family room, her twin brother is logging in to the Blackboard course management system to attend an online history lecture.

Both are enrolled in Broward Virtual School, a program of the Broward County Schools that operates as a franchise of Florida Virtual School. FLVS is frequently cited as a pioneering success story for online education. When our twins first enrolled in BVS as fourth graders, their curriculum was delivered under a contract between BVS and K12 Inc., a for-profit online school, because FLVS only covers middle and high school. K12 is the subject of some controversy because its aggressive expansion plans often put it in a position of undercutting public schools, and last fall it got slammed in an investigative report about skimpy teacher qualifications and excessive student-teacher ratios (sometimes as high as 275-to-1). However, our experience with the quality of its curriculum has been mostly positive, and my son took advantage of the option of remaining on the K12 curriculum into sixth grade because my wife thought it suited his learning style better.

My wife acts as their learning coach (and stern task master), with me as backup. I'm also responsible for technical support, which mostly means I'm the one everyone yells at when the wireless router stops working.

Because pictures of kids sitting in front of their computers are not particularly dramatic, my favorite virtual school photo is still one from early on in this adventure, when they were conducting a baking soda chemistry experiment in the kitchen. One of the things K12's program was good at was supplying home school science kits, safety goggles and all.

Mad scientists experimenting in the kitchen.

Notable BVS alumni include professional golfer Lexi Thompson, a 2012 graduate of the high school program, who at age 12 was the youngest person to qualify to play in the U.S. Women's Open. BVS provides remote education on a flexible schedule to meet the needs of athletes and musical prodigies with active travel schedules, as well as students who are too ill to attend regular school, but it also appeals to families like mine who are seeking a better education for their kids. My older daughter, now in college, also took a couple of Florida Virtual School courses, including one in art history that would not have been available to her through regular public high school.

The Florida legislature now mandates that all high school students take at least one virtual class prior to graduation, either from home or from a school computer lab. Although the school system has some logistical and "unfunded mandate" complaints about how to make that work, it does strike me as a good idea to give all kids at least some exposure to how online education works.

Does this mean I believe online education is the future? Not really, not by itself. When my wife and I first enrolled our twins in virtual school in 2010, we called our blog about the experience School of Last Resort because by this time we had churned through public, private, parochial and charter schools and were fleeing a charter school that we thought had lost its way. Maybe our standards are too high, or maybe we just have to do everything the hard way.

Although I would not claim we have found educational nirvana in my household, virtual school met a few key needs:

-- It let us assert more control over the quality of our children's education, without taking on the full burden of teaching them, as in traditional home schooling. They have a teacher for each class, albeit a remote one.

-- The kids are never left behind when they don't understand something. They repeat the material until they have mastered it. This is particularly important in subjects like math, where each level of mastery builds on the last. For all the talk about adaptive systems software that will sense each child's learning style, the infinite patience of a computer-based scoring system might be at least as important, at least for those topics that can be taught with a multiple choice test.

-- When our kids excel, they need not be bored waiting for the other children to catch up. If they're ready for high school material, they can take those courses even as middle school students.