Virtual School is the Future

Since the 1800s, visionaries like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and their contemporaries have advocated for a new form of education; an education where every student has a custom-built curriculum that fits their interests and abilities. In this model, which has been broadly called “progressive education”, the teacher’s job is to carefully observe each student–Montessori called this practice “teacher as scientist”. When the teacher observes an opportunity for growth or a developing interest in a student, they match them with sufficiently difficult challenges to spur their social, emotional, and intellectual development. It’s a wonderful fantasy, but is it possible?

The average high school class in the US has more than 25 students. How are teachers supposed to watch each student for any meaningful period of time? At best, that could give each student a minute or two of individual attention. So, for the last century and a half, schools have given up on “progressive education”. It was deemed “impractical”. Schools instead designed themselves to behave like a factory. Students are the raw material that moves from station to station until they come out a Standardized Worker™.

But, while society focused its attention toward creating minuscule improvements to the learning factory model, something magical happened: the modern internet (Web 3.0). For the first time since these theories of progressive education were forged 150 years ago, the advice is practical for the average educator. Montessori, Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, Erikson, and others were on the right track, they just needed technology to catch up with their brilliant ideas.

Now we have futuristic computers and beautiful software that run our world. Computers coordinate the delivery of half a billion packages every day, they run our largest factories, and they ensure over ten thousand planes reach their destination on time every hour. Programs like Zoom, Slack, and Discord improved communication and collaboration so drastically, many companies sold their offices and transitioned to a fully remote workforce. 

But, somehow, schools didn’t get the memo. They still look and behave the same way as they did 200 years ago. An educator may use computers for interactive lectures, eBooks, and online homework submissions, but that’s just scratching the surface. They’re squandering 99% of the modern computer’s potential to revolutionize schooling. But, we shouldn’t be surprised; society’s current school model is ancient. It’s hard to combine technology from science fiction with a bumbling bureaucracy that has existed unchanged for 200 years. If we rebuild our school models to fully utilize the potential of computers and the modern internet, every student will be observed, cared for, and accelerated at the level Montessori desired. The pioneers of progressive educators saw the future, but only now can we realize their dream.

When the Classroom Comes Online

When the classroom comes online, we will build a huge repository of data about each and every student, all without any effort. Teachers don’t need to fill out paperwork to tell administrators they spoke to a student for 14 minutes about their last homework assignment because the software will already know. The software will know a student is 20% less talkative on Mondays and needs extra encouragement. The software will know the student is interested in physics because their engagement increases 24% when the topic comes up. It will know when they’re paired with a specific student, their average performance increases by 40%. It will know that even though their math work is 10% above grade level, they haven’t been improving as quickly as their peers so they need temporary support until they’re pushing their personal limits. The software will know to recommend sleep hygiene activities because the student consistently submits homework past midnight. The software will help teachers create targeted support for every student, not just those who are struggling.

When the classroom comes online, every teacher will have an AI “assistant” to observe and take notes about their students–and this assistant would make note of everything. Not just typical tasks like attendance and homework quality, but observations like student engagement levels in a discussion. Students can’t “fall through the cracks” when an assistant is there to alert the teacher when the student needs extra help, even if they’re too embarrassed to ask. At Sora, our custom learning management system tracks student progress, performance, and engagement. Among many other things, it uses this data to make personalized “intervention suggestions” so our educators can catch situations before they become problems.

When the classroom comes online, there will no longer be rows of desks. The classroom, and what we do inside of it, will be fundamentally different. When we asked traditional educators why they don’t use more science-based teaching like peer-to-peer or small-group learning, most cited logistical concerns like reorganizing their classroom or noise levels. However, that doesn’t apply in a virtual environment. With nothing more than free Zoom, teachers can facilitate peer-to-peer learning in breakout rooms with a few clicks. But in the near future, when there is better classroom software, we will effortlessly create learning experiences utilizing peer-to-peer discussions, instant structured debate, jigsaw sessions, and much more. When the classroom comes online, there’s no limit on a teacher’s creativity. If they can imagine a learning experience, it can be created. And, as virtual reality matures, we’ll soon be having a debate about Aristotelian ethics inside the Lyceum or discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life while floating in the oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Personalized Learning Plans

When the classroom comes online, a standardized curriculum no longer makes sense. A standard graduation plan exists to make school administration easier. Is there really a reason students have to learn about The American Revolution before Socrates and ancient Athens? When schools were designed, it wasn’t realistic to allow students to learn in their own order. Actually, it would have been impossible.

Let’s assume that a student has to learn 1,000 chapters of information in high school. To allow students to learn that information in whatever order they’d like, that would require more than 4 x 102567 acceptable graduation plans. No wonder “personalized education” never caught on–that’s a lot of paperwork! Administrators would never be able to differentiate between what a student has already learned and what they still need to cover. 

However, when schools leverage the power of computers, record-keeping is no longer difficult. Students can learn in whatever order they’d like depending on whatever seems most interesting at the moment.

At Sora, we’ve designed our school around this superpower. We deconstruct each class into a couple dozen “skills” a student must learn. Then, we track each skill on a 5 point scale based on each student’s demonstrated mastery. That means we have over 3 x 105735 ways a student can complete their high school education at Sora–and we’re always adding more (that’s significantly more than the number of atoms in the known universe). At Sora, students can also choose how they’d like to learn each skill. Students can attend workshops with industry professionals, work through a short class led by an Expert, create a project with a few classmates, or just read a book. We’re giving students freedom.

Freedom for Children

When the classroom comes online, students regain control over their bodies. Today, schools operate like prisons. If you’re not in your cell block at the right time of the day, you’ll face punishments. If you try to go get pizza for lunch, there will be a literal police officer there to stop you. Even when kids are not at school, we treat them like they’re on parole. If they fail to show up to school, police officers will eventually knock on their door and threaten them or their families with jail time. (Yes, this actually happens. Over 6.5 million US students are deemed truant every year, with some of the worst offenders being criminally prosecuted.)

This is not how schools will develop the leaders of tomorrow: the leaders who must solve the most difficult, complicated, important threats ever encountered by our species. The traditional, authoritarian system is not the model of the future. Our children’s children will mock our draconian approach to child-rearing. When the classroom comes online, students can attend school from anywhere. If their parents are one of the hundreds of millions of remote workers after the pandemic, their child will be able to join them on their more flexible lifestyle. We will once again enable families to live their lives together. If a student wishes to be involved in a sport or club, their schedule will be flexible enough to allow exploration. When the classroom comes online, our students will once again have the time, freedom, and flexibility to discover themselves.

A Diverse, High-Quality School Community

When the classroom comes online, students and faculty from across the world will be learning side-by-side. A class about African history will be taught by a historian living in Nigeria; a friendly debate about political philosophy will feature an American and Norwegian student. This level of cultural and intellectual diversity is impossible in a physical school building where the faculty and students are composed of whoever happens to live within 10 miles of the property. Most importantly, schools will become more diverse which is unfathomably important for kids who are developing their worldviews.

The Next Decade

Over the next decade, great schools will learn to leverage the power of the modern computer, but the best schools will be built inside of them.

During COVID-19, schools around the world shut down–some for longer than a year. Over a billion students had their schooling disrupted, with most of them moving to online learning. This experience changed the education system forever. Millions of passionate educators and technologists pulled together to create tools and systems to run this new normal. Students and their families were forced to rethink how they engage with learning–and many parents saw, for the first time, what was really happening in their students’ classes. Simply put, COVID-19 broke our K-12 education system. From the pieces, we will have the opportunity to build something new.

Unfortunately, almost all “virtual learning” is just moving the poorly-designed traditional system online. They’re designing the future by looking at the past. They’re creating a “horseless carriage” when they should be creating an airplane. The modern computer is the most important, powerful tool ever created; if it wasn’t the impetus for permanent reform, I’m not hopeful meaningful change will ever evolve from the traditional system.

Instead, the change must come from parents and students who are fed up; parents and students who realize the current system is largely wasting everyone’s time. Until the general public wakes up, we will continue to force billions of children to sleepwalk their way through a 13-year charade for dubious benefit.

School should be better. We have all of the tools to make it better. Every student deserves a personalized graduation plan, self-paced learning, data-driven interventions, a flexible schedule, active learning, and a close relationship with other students and faculty from across the world. That’s why Sora exists. We’re creating a school for the next century.

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