Experimenting With iSchools
When New York City educators Alisa Berger and Mary Moss were developing their new school, they knew they wanted to integrate online instruction into the traditional classroom setting. But they were blown away by the poor quality of existing Internet-based learning programs.
So they built their own, cobbling together off-the-shelf lesson plans and homegrown projects into a comprehensive online curriculum.
Two years later, Berger and Moss’s high school, the iSchool, is the crown jewel in New York’s new "Innovation Zone," or iZone. iSchool students download assignments their teachers have uploaded to the Internet, and even when they’re in the same classroom as their teacher, they’re frequently plugged into the web. When the National September 11 Memorial & Museum asked iSchool students to create an exhibit for teenagers, for example, the students produced audio based on interviews with teens in Afghanistan, Israel, England and Louisiana.
New York is counting on the iSchool’s approach as one way to boost student achievement.
"A lot of kids struggle in school because the school is not teaching them where they are," says Berger. "Technology allows us to do exactly that."
This fall eighty-one schools, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, will launch programs that blend online and real-time instruction, and the city will begin a randomized study of a subset of these schools to see which helps students advance fastest.
District officials see promise not just for the high-performing high school students the iSchool enrolls but also for struggling students in elementary and middle grades. The new technology speeds up the process of instruction, practice and assessment from several days to a few minutes—keeping easily bored students engaged, officials say. With students working on computers, teachers can administer a quiz, then follow up instantly with one assignment for students who struggled and another, more complex task for those who aced it. The technology also lets teachers customize assignments based on students’ needs without the stigmatizing effect of dividing a class into groups by ability.
Good teachers have always differentiated instruction, says John White, New York’s deputy chancellor for innovation. But doing it well takes superhuman quantities of time, effort and information, making it a struggle for even master teachers, much less novices juggling 125 students with a wide range of abilities.
Critics charge that moving instruction online reduces the teacher to an automaton and deprives students of human contact. But using technology as a support system doesn’t take away from the craft of teaching, argues Yosi Ben-Dov, who runs Time To Know, an Israeli company participating in New York City’s pilot. Time To Know allows teachers to compile lessons from a menu of options, and intrepid teachers can upload plans of their own for others to use.