A Virtual Race to the Top

By 03/04/2010

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Now that the first round of Race to the Top (RttT) awards have been announced, we can appreciate the impact that this new federal initiative is having on stimulating new thinking at state and local levels.  Promising money to states if they come up with sensible ideas seems to work more effectively than punishing schools and districts for low performance. Better data collection, more charter schools, merit pay for effective teachers, higher state proficiency standards–all are worthy parts of the RttT mix.

But some of the truly bold new ideas in education today are escaping the attention of RttT policymakers. Why not ask states to set up virtual high school courses that students could use to help get their high school diplomas?  Why not create a competition between virtual courses and brick-and-mortar courses?  Why not ask for regional consortia to accredit virtual courses for national distribution?

Life sciences can be transformed by making use of virtual curricula that can be easily accessed at any time and in any place.  In today’s brick-and-mortar biology classes,  students are looking at a 2-dimensional textbook diagram of a frog’s digestive system, and then they are asked to dissect a frog in a laboratory. Often the student can see little connection between the text and the reality.   In the future, student avatars will be dissecting frog avatars in 3-dimensional space. Dissections can be repeated ten times over–without killing any amphibians.

Similarly, the mathematics of cubic space can be taught in three dimensions. Students can cooperate in the design of communities  In government classes, they can create virtual political campaigns.  Students themselves can be given credit for developing their own contributions to open source curricula. The possibilities are endless.

Let’s hope the next round of RttT expectations raises the bar to an entirely new level.

[Please see the blog entries here and  here and here and here and here and here for more discussion of the Race to the Top finalists.]

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