Learning's Cyber Frontier

President Clinton has been working toward wiring every public school classroom in the country with Internet-capable computers. In some cases, though, the Internet is the classroom.

And that has some people troubled. They worry about long-distance learning's lack of structure. They say students miss out by not having a teacher on hand or classmates to interact with face to face. They point out that pupils are at the mercy of sometimes slow, occasionally dysfunctional computers.

All of those things are true. "Virtual learning" isn't for everyone, and it isn't perfect. We wouldn't want to see it replace "real" classrooms and campuses altogether. But it can be a terrific supplement for young people in traditional high schools and colleges, and it can offer "nontraditional" or at-risk students a valuable alternative.

Take Virtual High School. About 550 students from around the country are enrolled in the program, which began in Massachusetts this academic year as a supplement to the usual high school fare. It offers 30 courses ranging from stellar and space-based astronomy to music appreciation. Students, working from computers at their schools, use e-mail and message boards to communicate with their cyberteachers and fellow students. They download their texts and assignments.

They are facing many of the problems the critics worry about - technological glitches, teachers who aren't right there - but they also are taking courses that might otherwise have been unavailable to them. They're learning to research and communicate on computers - skills that will serve them well the rest of their lives. They're working with teachers and students they otherwise wouldn't come into contact with in high school.

Not a bad thing. And for students who, for unusual reasons, don't have the time for traditional school or for those who don't have the inclination, it can be very good thing. A recent Monitor article told of an aspiring Olympic athlete who, were it not for college courses on the Internet, likely wouldn't get a degree. She's not alone.

The founders of CyberSchool, which began two years ago in Eugene, Ore., perhaps put it best with their list of what their school is and isn't. It isn't a trendy new educational gimmick. It isn't a new delivery system for old teaching methods. It isn't the best system for all subjects for all students.

It is a new learning environment for teachers and students. It's a new set of tools. It's student centered. And it is still unknown territory - filled with hazard and promise.

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