This morning the New York Times has a story on the front page that is ten years old in its timing. It asks—as if it were newsworthy—whether virtual science is a good way to teach high school students. It seems the vaunted College Board has decided to challenge the online labs that provide experiments in mixing chemicals, dissecting tissue, and other expensive and now rare on-hands school laboratory traditions.
Maybe in 1996 these would have been worthwhile questions. But in the meantime here are some changes virtual science has caused: Detailed, realistic online labs have replaced NO labs that students would find in many schools. Virtual experiments offer experiences considered too dangerous to be done in a brick and mortar lab. Lessons using tissue spare the lives of experimental animals. Virtual experiments offer a broad range and variety of levels of difficulty impossible in a classroom full of kids.
Nonetheless complains, “Trevor Packer, the [College] board’s executive director for Advanced Placement [:] “You could have students going straight into second-year college science courses without ever having used a Bunsen burner.”
In 2006, using a Bunsen burner is an insurmountable obstacle for teenagers in failing schools, developing countries, and places with strict fire codes. With today’s technology you could easily do a virtual Bunsen burner lesson on your mobile phone screen. Yet the vaunted Gray Lady New York Times, who probably carried a story about Robert Bunsen’s burner invention in 1855, is giving front page coverage to going back to 19th century schooling. Here is some flavor of that from the NY Times article:
John Watson, an education consultant who wrote a report last year documenting virtual education’s growth, said online schools had faced lawsuits over financing and resistance by local school boards but nothing as daunting as the College Board. “This challenge threatens the advance of online education at the national level in a way that I don’t think there are precedents for,” Mr. Watson said.
The board signaled a tough position this year: “Members of the College Board insist that college-level laboratory science courses not be labeled ‘A.P.’ without a physical lab,” the board said in a letter sent to online schools in April. “Online science courses can only be labeled ‘A.P.’ if the online provider” can ensure “that students have a guided, hands-on (not virtual) laboratory experience.”
But after an outcry by online schools, the board issued an apology in June, acknowledging that “there may be new developments” in online learning that could merit its endorsement. . . .
[And what does the accrediting industry itself—of which the College Board is a prime example— show when it measures online labs?] On the 2005 administration of the A.P. biology exam, for instance, 61 percent of students nationwide earned a qualifying score of three or above on the A.P.’s five-point system. Yet 71 percent of students who took A.P. biology online through the Florida Virtual School, and 80 percent of students who took it from the Virtual High School, earned a three or higher on that test.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Pam Birtolo, chief learning officer at the Florida Virtual School.