Keep thinking the unthinkable – Gerald Haigh ponders the evolution towards the virtual school


The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh.

It’s important always to think ahead of what seems currently possible. When computers first arrived in education there were many who speculated on whether they would ever replace the teacher. By now we feel pretty certain that’s not going to happen – but it’s early days, and there’s certainly a lively debate around the exact nature of the role.

But even if we think that teachers will always be necessary, how about the building? Is it possible that technology, and the concept of anytime, anywhere learning, even if it doesn’t make school buildings entirely unnecessary, might considerably shrink them in importance, size and cost?

Parkway Program I’ve always been fascinated, for example, by the Parkway Program in Philadelphia. A fully functioning high school with no building apart from an administrative centre, it attracted much attention, and a number of imitators across the world, in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It’s origins lay in plain necessity. The City of Philadelphia needed a new school, and because there was no money, city leaders listened to educational innovator Professor John Bremer, who pointed out that there were many suitable under-used spaces around the city centre – hospital lecture theatres, workshops, museums, meeting rooms. With imagination, good organisation, a modified curriculum and, crucially, excellent teachers, hand-picked for creativity, it could add up to a great school, embedded in the community and making use of the skills of the people – doctors, museum curators, engineers - already working there. [Picture from thenotebook.org - Reforming Philadelphia’s troubled high schools – what’s been tried]

Even the most reluctant administrators were won over by the huge cost savings, and so Parkway came into being in 1967. It operated in its original form well into the Seventies until for a range of reasons, including changes of leadership and policy, the original vision became clouded. Now, though, I wonder whether today’s technology could give such a project the necessary legs that would make it simultaneously radical, sustainable and acceptable at all levels of accountability.

It’s a thought inspired by the experience, in recent months, of observing children using technology to collaborate on shared projects and to support each other with feedback. A year ago I described here how a group of children at Microsoft Showcase School Simon de Senlis were using their Surface devices --

‘…..sharing their work among each other, taking feedback from other group members and the teacher, all on their class site using the power of Office 365, via the school’s SharePoint – based LP+4 Learning Platform.’

That style of technology-enabled collaborative work is becoming increasingly common – a forthcoming Microsoft case study and blog on the use of Hwb+ (based on LP+4) and Office 365 in Wales, will present more examples.

Simon de Senlis Surface

What’s striking about this kind of technology-enabled learning is how it can transcend the physical boundaries of the classroom. Obviously children will need their face-to-face sessions, but now, not only can they work on beyond the classroom and out of school hours, they are strongly motivated to do so, with the teacher on hand to lead and manage the learning.

There are other straws in this wind of change. A few years ago I visited a school in the North West that, as part of an ambitious ‘extended school’ project had been loaned a council house as an ‘outreach’ centre, in the heart of an estate, for some of its students who were more comfortable there. At about the same time I learned of a school on the East coast that was using disused shops for the same purpose. It must be at least ten years ago, too, when I discussed with the head of an oversubscribed school a well worked-out plan to hugely increase access to their sixth form with the aid of distance learning. In all such cases the aim is to blur the boundaries between home, school and community, and with the help of effective handheld technology and the Cloud, such projects become realistic and achievable.

I can’t help feeling that the more of this boundary-blurring we see, the more likely it is that teachers will begin to question the structures and systems we take for granted. Will we see more work done at home, or in convenient places within the community? Is it possible that the conventional classroom – currently where children spend most of their time – will become a ‘home room’ used for catch up meetings and allocation of tasks?

If that’s so, then even though there may be sudden move to a no-building school, it’s quite possible that there will be a sort of slow melting, whereby the building gradually shrinks to an essential core, as more activities fan out into the community and to the home.

At the very beginning of the Parkway Program, the late Dr Mario D. Fantini, of the University of Massachusetts School of Education, a pioneer of alternative approaches to education said,

“Up till now we’ve had the notion that the classroom is the only place where learning can take place. The Parkway Program utterly rejects that notion; it breaks down the dichotomy between living and learning.”

When Dr Fantini said that, fifty years ago, such ideas were visionary in the extreme. But by the time he died, in 1989, computers were becoming established in schools and before the end of his life he must have been convinced that by the 21st Century, he would have been proved right.

In the event, we’ve been slow to pick up the torch, but I have no doubt that in time we’ll keep faith with his convictions.

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Further reading on Parkway:

Education Next: “Out of the Mainstream – staying there isn’t easy”

Rewiring the System: “Parkway Program”

Rewiring the System: “My Creative Family: The Parkway Experiment, March 23, 1970”

John Bremer’s own 1972 account of Parkway, ‘School without Walls: Philadelphia's Parkway Program’ is readily available second hand.


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