Virtual School Meanderings

July 20, 2009

This Fundamental Goal, We Will…

the-west-wingI want to begin the week with something that has been mulling over in my mind for a few weeks now…

So, today is the 40th anniversary of the actual moon landing.  You can follow along live at

A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry entitled What’s Next? – it was basically a national media campaign looking at what is or should be the next great milestone in scientific, technological or innovative discovery.  At the time I had a lengthy discussion with folks on my Facebook page about what it could be. Suggestions ranged from curing cancer to peace in the Middle East to energy self-sufficiency.

The curing cancer suggestion reminded me on an episode of the West Wing entitled “100,000 Airplanes“.  It is the one where President Bartlett is giving his fourth state of the union and in the weeks leading up to the address he has his staff, namely Sam Seaborn, write up something about curing cancer in the next decade.  During the episode, Sam reads what he had written to a reporter (who was also his ex-fiance):

Over the past half century, we’ve split the atom, we’ve spliced the gene and we’ve roamed Tranquility Base. We’ve reached for the stars and never have we been closer to having them in our grasp. New science, new technology is making the difference between life and death, and so we need a national commitment equal to this unparalleled moment of possibility. And so I announce to you tonight that I will bring the full resources of the Federal Government and the full reach of my office to this fundamental goal: We will cure cancer by the end of this decade.

About a week after the What’s Next? and Facebook discussion, I received the following item from eSchool News.

Apollo 11 Families crowded around black-and-white television sets in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong take man’s first steps on the moon. Now, they’ll be able to watch the Apollo 11 mission recreated in real time on the web, follow Twitter feeds of transmissions between Mission Control and the spacecraft, and even get an eMail alert when the lunar module touches down. Key words: Apollo 11, JFK Library, lunar module| Read More

Derek’s Blog also had a couple of interesting entries entitled, “Appollo 11 – 40th Anniversary” and “Moon landing remembered“.

And I have to be honest I’m still captivated by this notion. However, instead of asking the same question of “what’s next?” again, let me frame it this way…

If some philanthropist was going to devote a billion dollars to solving one
of the problems of the world, what do you think they should focus on?

Let me ask a second question…

If some philanthropist was going to devote a billion dollars to fixing the education
system in the United States, what do you think that solution should look like?

Feel free to dig into whichever of these questions move you…


  1. I think that a billion dollars would look like good seed money. What we need to do, more than anything, is ensure that libraries, public institutions and high-traffic areas all over the world have cell phone towers with 3G capabilities. We don’t need to build schools, we need to build connections. The folks associated with this forum know that school can be not only right and good and whole through an online medium, but can in many cases be better than a brick-and-mortar approach, in that we can connect people with diverse ideas and backgrounds the world over, and truly learn from one another. We have constructed, perhaps accidentally, the ultimate platform for mutual guided inquiry and differentiated instruction.

    All we need to do, then, is hook people in. We need laptops with internet connections in Afghanistan, in Burma, and in Sierra Leone. We need an army of translators, and perhaps we also need to ween average adult Westerners off of their addiction to English exclusivity.

    A billion dollars would scratch the surface. On the other hand, we could just decide to start tomorrow with no money at all.

    Comment by Vance McPherson — July 21, 2009 @ 7:39 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for the comments Vance! An interesting way to begin the discussion. I would take issue with the comment “can in many cases be better than a brick-and-mortar approach”, but beyond that I hope that this is the start of some interesting ideas…

    Comment by mkbnl — July 21, 2009 @ 9:14 am | Reply

  3. Just thinking about solving one important world problem is overwhelming. I suspect that working with governments to bring a lasting peace to the world. But, that would be an end-product. Improving human relationships and living situations, preserving our Earth and its wonders–instilling a love for life and the desire to sustain life would be a priority. Appropriate education would come from that, as would appropriate medical care and care of all we need to sustain ourselves well. It’s a tangled yet delicately interwoven task. I wish we could cooperate to accomplish such a miracle.

    Comment by Lona — July 21, 2009 @ 12:19 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks Lona… And one billion may not be enough to do what I am asking everyone to think about… Maybe more is required.

    Comment by mkbnl — July 21, 2009 @ 12:54 pm | Reply

  5. mkbnl — thanks for the feedback — and if you take issue with the notion that Online Learning can be better than the traditional classroom, allow me to explain!

    1) We have eliminated all prejudicial barriers between students. Neither socio-economic nor racial nor cultural nor medical differences are noticeable in our virtual classrooms. All that is left is the subject being studied at the centre, to be treated with care and respect by students with the guidance of teachers

    2) We have created a platform that allows the maximum differentiation of instruction possible, making it possible in ways never dreamed to permit students to learn and explore material at their own pace and in their own way, again with guidance of professional writers and teachers.

    3) At the same time, we have created a platform that allows — and even insists upon — collaboration and interaction in ways that would not be expected of all students in a traditional classroom.

    4) The quality of education that we can offer — which is second to none, can be equally easily offered in Toronto, in Iqaluit and in Kandahar.

    No brick and mortar school can boast these things!

    I’m pretty sure that a billion dollars towards our very profession could indeed change the world.

    Comment by Vance McPherson — July 21, 2009 @ 5:00 pm | Reply

  6. Vance, according to the research to date you’ve also created an environment with online learning that only the best and brightest students can be successful in. I would necessarily say that makes “online Learning… better than the traditional classroom”.

    Plus, why can’t all of the things you described exist in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. When I taught K-12 from 1999 to 2003, my students were able to do 3 (and I like to think 4 as well). And that began a decade ago. I was a new teacher then, and I suspect that if I went back into the classroom now I could provide 2 without too much trouble.

    Your comments are made based on the assumption that the brick-and-mortar environments are the same ones you likely attended when you were a student. For example, do you know that about a third of the enrollments in the provincial online program in New Brunswick are from students who have a brick-and-mortar teacher in their classroom, providing the primary instruction? These blended environments that about 750-1000 students each year have access to can do the four things you’ve listed, plus they have the added advantage of a content expert in the room with them. Can your online students say that?

    I also take issue with the notion that if we are comparing strictly online vs. strictly offline that the online comes out on top in all instances. A teacher in a face-to-face environment is often able to recognize if a student is having difficulties, diagnose those difficulties (usually through a short conversation, often involving questions and answers that can be done in a much quicker fashion than often occurs in an online environment), and address those concerns – particularly if we are talking about an asynchronous environment. A gifted storyteller could easily provide a lecture that as more engaging as the online equivalent.

    The problem with your view, and I’ll be honest and say that there are many who share that view, is that online learning is better. It isn’t better, and it isn’t necessary worse. It is different. It allows some things that the classroom can’t. The same is true of the classroom, as it allows some things that we haven’t been able to replicate effectively in the online environment. But it isn’t just us, its the students as well. In the same way that the classroom is failing some students, the online environment is also failing some students. There are those who learn well in the virtual environments we’ve created, and there are others who learn better when they are sitting in front of you.

    This is one of the problems with the K-12 online learning movement (and also much of the research dealing with K-12 online learning), there is too much time spent on arguing proving that the online is as good or better – and not enough time focused upon looking at how to maximize its strengths, while minimizing its weaknesses. Figuring out what it does well and doing more of it. Figuring out where it is lacking and finding ways to address it. Assuming or arguing that it is better doesn’t help the students who can’t succeed in that environment.

    Comment by mkbnl — July 21, 2009 @ 5:56 pm | Reply

  7. The billion dollar solution to fixing the education system in the United States should come in 3 phrases:

    — adminstrative policy and procedure changes to include assessment, curriculum to align with 21st century digital age literacy requirements and standards
    — district-wide infrastructure improvements to include individual school needs
    — practical professional development to include students, corporations and community at large

    Comment by Kecia Waddell — July 21, 2009 @ 6:29 pm | Reply

  8. Thanks Kecia for the comments…

    Comment by mkbnl — July 21, 2009 @ 6:36 pm | Reply

  9. mkbnl — what a splendid and thoughtful response! I agree with you on most points. I’ve taught in both environments. Actually, I’ve taught civilian city, civilian remote, military, and online. I think you’re quite correct in that it isn’t fantastically useful to spend a lot of time trying to “figure out” which model is best, as we’re looking at two different things. I suppose I believe that online ed is something of an underdog right now, and the thing about underdogs is that (and one may disagree with this approach) to be treated as peer, one must show oneself to be competitive.

    I think the notion of a content expert in class is an excellent one. As bandwidth limitations become less restrictive, there may well be ways of doing this over distance as well in a consistent and feasible manner. I think one of the greatest approaches to this that I’ve seen is what the good folks at A.Y. Jackson SS are doing with their “jPod” program. But I think we will also move towards a model where the role of “content expert” may well be distributed across vast geographical regions. Perhaps, someday, we will move to a model where student can attend school for the things that students benefit most from anyway — music, athletics, drama, social interaction, student government — leaving the learning to the technological medium.

    Not wanting to deviate too far from the original question you posed, I think that if we want to talk about the best way to use $1,000,000,000,000 to educate the planet, this would be the way to reach the most number of people and unlock the greatest human potential. I, of course, could be mistaken. But I’m very cognizant that the notion of a brick-and-mortar school is a fairly recent one anyway — classes have always been held, but institutions with multiple classes at the K-12 level have really only been around for five or six generations — not nearly long enough to argue for eternal societal penetration, especially when much of the world has never seen such an institution.

    What do you think?

    Comment by Vance McPherson — July 22, 2009 @ 8:35 am | Reply

  10. Vance, I’m not familiar with the “jPod program” so if there is a link you could post, I’d appreciate that (as I’d love to go and check it out).

    I think you’re giving the brick-and-mortar system more longevity than what it actually possesses, at least in the “with multiple classes at the K-12 level” stage. It has only been the past three, maybe four generations, where we have gotten beyond the one room school. I know my grandparents were educated in a one room school, which means at least for my family the past three generations have seen the existing brick-and-mortar system. So I agree with your assessment that changing the system should be easier than most people think – provided the political will is there and the money to make it happen.

    And I think the kind of blended or hybrid learning environment you describe would be even easier to achieve cause it doesn’t mean changing the structure of the brick-and-mortar school that much – particularly in our country. If you think about the fact that through many of the Industry Canada programs (e.g., SchoolNet, Grassroots, Community Access, etc.) we have our schools wired and connected beyond the dial-up stage. There is technology present, teachers are largely trained with the basics in its use. We’re in good shape to start, all we need is the way to begin to connect to each other beyond the individual brick-and-mortar school (and Grassroots and SchoolNet did some of this, but not enough – and most folks weren’t ready for it when they started anyway). So I think you’re on to something, and something we can accomplish a little easier than our colleagues south of the border because of the way we fund education and how our system is controlled.

    Comment by mkbnl — July 22, 2009 @ 11:47 am | Reply

  11. I came across your blog, and started reading it. I find it interesting for myself to learn about new ideas, tips, techniques, about the different types of programs that are offered.

    Comment by kensjvprojects — July 23, 2009 @ 4:08 pm | Reply

  12. Thank you Ken. Please note that I removed the link that you included to the vendor blog that you had linked to your name, as it appears that this comment may have been designed as spam to increase the traffic to that site.

    Comment by mkbnl — July 23, 2009 @ 4:13 pm | Reply

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