A Virtual School

By Hyemin Han
February 2016

Only one student is present for class, it seems, as more than 20 sky-blue chairs remain empty. The lone student, junior Meredith Yang, flips open a 19-inch Dell laptop in the Distance Learning Room in McNeil.

“Welcome to BlueJeans,” a wom­an’s voice echoes from the speakers, introducing the name of the plat­form through which all students in the Malone Schools Online Network (MSON) attend classes.

Yang, an international student, punches in a 9-digit meeting ID, and, in seconds, he’s in his Multivari­able Calculus class. About 15 other students from around the country appear on the screen, ready to learn.

Yang, who started studying Calculus by his freshman year in China, has a passion for mathemat­ics and hopes to pursue higher level courses in STEM— which are made available to him through MSON. He lights up as he talks about his class­mates and the connection he finds with them through “math language.”

“I can talk with them about, ‘Ok, what should I do about it? Should I use linear algebra or should I use complex analysis to do this prob­lem?’” he said.

Yang is just one of the many sec­ondary school students who are join­ing the almost cultural shift towards digitized education, a national trend toward online learning that has been steadily increasing.

Online learning has boomed to the point where an entire col­lege degree can be earned on the web. Whether it be asynchronous learning (learning that can be done completely independently, such as pre-recorded lectures or lesson plans) or synchronous learning (learning done in live time), more and more people across the globe have a ticket to education through the Internet.

However, teachers and crit­ics across the country debate the intentions behind growing online learning trends, questioning whether institutions are sacrificing quality for quantity.

As a member of the Malone Family Foundation, which gives endowments to independent schools, MPH has the choice to be part of the Malone Schools Online Network (MSON). MPH is the only school in New York state in the network, which comprises 19 college prepa­ratory schools across the country that are pooling student interest in advanced or uncommon classes that they would otherwise be unable to offer.

By combining real-time instruc­tion across the BlueJeans Network as well as exercises outside of the vir­tual classroom, MSON students expe­rience a close simulation of a real classroom. In total, MSON offers 28 courses ranging from Philosophy: Nature of Evil to the American Food System to Fundamentals of Nuclear Science.

Last year, 11 MPH students par­ticipated in seven different MSON classes. This year, though the num­ber of students taking MSON classes has only increased by one, the total number of classes taken increased to 11. Most classes are STEM with the exception of higher-level lan­guage classes such as Chinese V and Arabic II.

Former Head of School Scott Wiggins spearheaded MPH’s enroll­ment in the program last year, a year after MSON’s initial launch in the 2013-14 school year. Being part of MSON, he said, would not only al­low MPH to affiliate itself with some of the most outstanding independent schools in the country, but also en­able it to take part in the new frontier in education.

“I was very keen for MPH to join MSON and made it a priority to do so,” Wiggins said.

Online learning, in many cases synonymous to distance learning, now refers to education that occurs on the Internet or primarily through technology. However, distance learning existed all the way back in 1892 at the University of Chicago. According to Forbes.com, the Uni­versity used the U.S. Postal Service to have correspondence between its course members, and later went on to broadcast classes on the radio and then on television.

Today, online learning has evolved to encompass many forms, including full-time online classes, self-paced eLearning, digital reference-ware (digital eTextbooks, instructional audio, lecture videos, diagrams, maps), simulation-based learning and game-based learning. Online learning has grown tremen­dously over the years, but no year as much as this past one.

According to Ambient Insight, a research firm for global eLearning and mobile learning, the U.S. has the largest population of online PreK-12 students globally. Ambient reported that worldwide, investments in learn­ing technology companies reached over $6.54 billion in 2015, a dramat­ic increase from the previous record set in 2014 of $2.42 billion.

MSON, however, is not yet com­mon at MPH. Only 11 percent of juniors and seniors and 7 percent of the entire Upper School take classes.

Head of Upper School and for­mer history teacher John Stegeman appreciates the role MSON plays in offering students opportunities oth­erwise unavailable. Although MSON becomes more cost-effective the more students join, since the school pays a flat program fee, Stegeman is not con­cerned about the number of students who participate. Instead, he hopes that it will allow students to experi­ence their full academic potential during high school through a mix of traditional and online learning.

“[MSON] was designed to be a niche within the broader package of what we do; it was never intended to replace what we do,” Stegeman said.

Many teachers around the coun­try, however, are finding that online learning is actually doing that: replac­ing what traditional teachers and traditional classrooms do. Why? Ac­cording to a New York Times inter­view with Karen Aronowitz, former president of the teachers’ union in Miami, it’s because of money.

“It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” she said.

Stegeman holds a similar senti­ment to many who are critical of online education’s efficacy in teach­ing students the way traditional learning does. By learning through online courses, students are not able to experience teacher-to-student relationships, collaboration, peer learning, problem-solving, friendship, interaction, and sense of community on the same level or in the same way they do in real classrooms, if at all.

Junior Trilok Reddy, who takes Advanced Economics, can attest to the pitfalls of learning through a computer screen.

“It can feel awkward at first, be­cause at MPH, you know everyone,” he said. “And even if you don’t know them in person, you’ve still seen them around and you still know how they sound and all the teachers you’ve heard of, you know that they’re good teachers. But with MSON classes, it’s kind of like starting at a new school again.”

Logistically, MSON classes pres­ent problems as well, including a lack of one-on-one time with teachers and having to almost exclusively commu­nicate with teachers through email.

“If you have more than, like, one question on the homework,” Reddy said, “it’s almost impossible to do it.”

Despite these drawbacks, higher-level institutions are not embracing online learning any less; William Cardamone, MPH’s Director of Col­lege Counseling, said that students should expect some college courses to be taught in an online format as well. Especially at for-profit col­leges, online learning is employed to minimize costs and maximize enroll­ment. Because of the likelihood that students will learn online once they go to college, some states— including Arkansas, Virginia, Florida, Michi­gan, and Alabama— have already made a certain level of online learn­ing a requirement for high-school graduation.

Though MPH will continue to offer MSON courses, Cardamone does not foresee an online learning requirement in MPH’s future. He believes MPH students will have no trouble interfacing with “virtual professors” and making sure they “advocate for themselves” in the chance they find themselves enrolled in online classes in college.

Instead, Cardamone hopes MPH students will use MSON to their advantage.

“We can allow our students who have these really high-level academic interests to continue to pursue it; they don’t have to wait until they get to college,” he said. “It speaks to our willingness to embrace innovation and change in education.”