Our school was one of the first international schools to embrace a one-to-one laptop program nearly six years ago, and I have little doubt that the use of technology has made the educational program stronger. At the same time, I’ve also been a big supporter of the power of distance education. Smaller international schools that effectively connect their students with a program such as the The Virtual High School can offer their students a range of course offerings well beyond their limited means locally.
Why, then, am I skeptical about the “School of One” pilot program in New York City? According to the New York Times, chancellor Joel Klein has been promoting a pilot project in one middle school that had students working individually during the summer months on personalized online coursework. Personalized attention is the hallmark of an independent school education, but I am not sure how this can be done sitting in a room with 79 other students all staring at their screens. The power of good educational technology is that, done right, it can deliver “just in time” curriculum that matches what Vygotsky termed a student’s zone of proximal development. Done right, good ed tech can seem like it is reading your mind, offering your just enough challenge to keep you interested but not so much as to turn you off a topic. This type of programming is successfully used in the ALEKs mathematics software we currently use in our Grade 7 and 8. It is also at the heart of some very interesting adaptive standardized testing being done by the Northwest Education Association. But ALEKS and the NWEA Measurement of Academic Progress are designed to supplement a student’s educational program. They are not the program themselves.