Last year, while my classmates at Washington International School sat at their desks by day and did their homework by night, I skipped school. And not just once. I didn’t attend a single day of 10th grade.
In ninth grade, I was frustrated. In school, I marched to other people’s orders, leaving little time to complete projects I was really interested in. So I arranged with my parents and my school to take a year off — my own sabbatical.
I loved it. During the year, I made a film about a man who stands in downtown Washington holding signs urging Monday morning commuters to smile. I completed a Google Science Fair project that studied whether reminding high school students that they may be tired affects their problem-solving skills. I also tried and failed, at least so far, to develop a mobile app called UPliftr that prompts users to do good deeds, such as holding a door open for a stranger, letting another driver cut in or giving someone an unexpected high five.
But I knew that I’d probably go back to my regular school the following fall, and I had to cover academic subjects — math, science and English — that I’d need in 11th grade. So I plunged into online education.
I began my sabbatical by taking three online courses through a Johns Hopkins University distance-learning program for high school students: honors pre-calculus, honors chemistry and a writing class. It was amazing to learn on my laptop at my own pace. For example, in the math class, I would watch a seven-minute video on how to solve equations using logarithms, then tackle a few problems. After typing in each answer, I immediately found out whether it was correct. If it was wrong, I could try again or read how to solve the problem. If I was totally stumped, I could call or email the instructor to get a more thorough explanation.
Instead of sitting in a specific seat at a specific time, listening to the same long lecture as everyone else, I could tailor the classes to my strengths and weaknesses. I could move through some material quickly but take as much time as I needed to absorb the difficult stuff. Not only did these courses free up time to shoot a movie, but their structure helped me learn the material as well as I would have in a classroom. In four months, I covered a year of math.
My writing course was also great. Every two weeks, my instructor gave me an assignment that I uploaded to a website by Monday’s midnight deadline. One week, I had to write an essay from the perspective of an inanimate object. (I chose the clock on our stove.) Another week, I attended a D.C. Council meeting and wrote a descriptive essay about the members who devoted time to checking their cellphones rather than following the proceedings.
Responding to each assignment, the instructor wrote several paragraphs of comments and criticism. He pushed me to use a more varied vocabulary and showed me the importance of setting a scene as a way to draw readers in. He was an excellent teacher who helped me improve my writing, even though I’ve never met him in person.
However, as I realized studying chemistry, online courses weren’t perfect substitutes. I missed one of the biggest benefits of the classroom: working with a small group of students. Standing alone in my kitchen dissolving Alka-Seltzer tablets in plastic cups of hot and cold water to test their reaction rates was a sorry alternative to a traditional chemistry lab.
At the same time, online education can do what established schools and universities don’t do well. Massive open online courses, often called MOOCs, are exactly what their name says: Web-based classes open to tens of thousands of people around the world, who can usually take them for free. For my social-science research on teen fatigue, for example, I needed to learn basic statistics, a subject I’d never studied. So I went to Udacity, an online learning company that was founded by Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford University professor, after he made an introductory artificial-intelligence class available for free on the Web — and more than 160,000 people in 190 countries enrolled. With Udacity, I didn’t have to sign up at a community college, buy a textbook, pay tuition or even leave my bedroom. I simply learned what I needed to learn, from standard deviation to confidence intervals, when I could.
One worry about such classes is that, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, roughly 90 percent of people who enroll fail to complete them. In one course, at least for a time, I was one of those people.
A year ago, when I had only a general interest in computer programming, I started Udacity’s “Introduction to Computer Science.” I didn’t get past the first few lessons. But when I began thinking about developing a mobile phone app, I finished the course and learned programming basics using the language Python. Big online classes work best when a motivated student has a specific use for the material.
The debate about online education is polarized — it’s either a grand solution for schools’ troubles, or it’s a menace. For example, the Economist recently reported that, because of MOOCs, “the ivory towers of academia have been shaken to their foundations.” Thrun predicts that in 50 years, only 10 institutions of higher learning will remain. Two Stanford scholars conclude that online learning represents nothing less than “a historic transformation in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized.”
At the same time, one prominent English professor at the University of Virginia, where the debate over online education nearly brought down the university president who resisted it, has argued that “Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is.” Professors at San Jose State University have protested that offering online classes would “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”
Based on my year away from traditional school, I think we’re looking at a new method too narrowly. Classroom education is not a relic. And online learning isn’t a pale imitation of “real” education, a dumbed-down version that endangers quality and excellence. The reality lies where it usually does — somewhere in between.
Classroom education won’t and shouldn’t be fully replaced by Web courses, but it could draw on what works online. For instance, in many high school courses, students could watch short video lectures at home to understand key concepts and then use class time more for discussions and group projects. Huge online courses have many virtues, but they need to do better at fostering the side-by-side collaboration that my generation will need on the job. In the end, each approach could strengthen the other.
That’s been true for me. I learned a lot studying online, but on Monday I’ll return to my school for 11th grade. Yet I’ll be returning as a different kind of student, one who sees the good points of the classroom more clearly but who also knows that virtual classrooms can be just as important as blackboards and desks.
Sophie Pink is an 11th grader at Washington International School.