School Zone

By Superintendent Philip Pempin

Vermilion Local School District has made technology a priority since 2010.  As with other advances in education, technology brings us both pros and cons.  The following article recently appeared in USA Today regarding schools that have received grant funds to integrate Virtual Reality into their curriculum.  It appears that this will be the next technology that will be a major focus for both education and our society.  This technology suggests many change for schools around the world.  As you will see in the article, it will ask us to reinvent the way we educate students.

Washington Leadership Academy uses $10 million grant from XQ: The Super School

High school freshman Zoe Valladares has been the mayor of a major metropolis. She’s chatted with former President Barack Obama. And she’s been assigned a house within her school by a magical sorting hat, just like the lucky students of Hogwarts in a Harry Potter novel.  Each of these incredible experiences was powered by virtual reality and computer technology – cornerstones of learning at Washington Leadership Academy in Washington D.C. Valladares is one of 110 freshmen at the new charter school, which admitted its inaugural class of 9th graders in 2016.

Along with her fellow classmates, Valladares uses virtual reality and computer science to supplement her studies – but she’s not just a consumer of technology. She’s also learning to write code and has ambitious plans for her life after high school. She wants a career in virtual reality, and to perhaps even found her own company.  She says virtual reality is the future, and she wants to be a part of it.  “It’s going to take over the world someday,” Valladares said.

Stacy Kane, one of Washington’s Leadership Academy’s co-founders, explains that the school uses technology and online courses to meet students at their level, rather than teaching an entire grade the same content. “Our classes are really pushing boundaries in terms of their uses of technology,” Kane said. “Our students can grow at their own paces.”  And instead of taking the same sequence of classes available at most high schools, students assemble a unique blend of classes and projects based on their interests and goals.

The school’s foundation in technology stretches far beyond virtual reality and computer science. Students also study what it means to participate in civic life as a digital citizen by creating blogs, coding complex websites and using social media tools. Leadership skills are another focus. Students are encouraged to practice crafting persuasive arguments and speaking in public.  Joseph Webb, Washington Leadership Academy’s founding principal, explains that teachers encourage students to think like designers by examining problems from a user’s perspective and subsequently hypothesizing possible solutions. Fittingly, Webb says this is the same approach educators should take to reimagining high school.

In 2016, Washington Leadership Academy was one of 10 schools to receive a $10 million grant from XQ: The Super School Project.   XQ planned to award five grants, but doubled that number after 700 applications were submitted. The winners are all working to create high schools where students work to solve real-world problems in collaborative, flexible environments.  Sponsored by XQ Institute and backed by Laurene Powell Jobs’ philanthropic organization, Emerson Collective, XQ sought out innovative ideas from the education community. The project’s mission statement reads: “We’ve gone from the Model T to the Tesla and from the switchboard to the smartphone. Yet high school has remained frozen in time.”

In moving towards a more modern educational paradigm, XQ’s Senior School Strategist Monica Martinez says faculty members must battle the biggest enemy of educational progress: Apathy.

“Using design thinking and the user experience when designing high school, rather than thinking about just what’s been done in the past, is critical,” she said. “There is so much apathy and so much boredom in high school.”

“We are stuck with an irrelevant model, and students are dissatisfied, but what are we doing about it as a society?” said Martinez. “The high school is a cultural icon and everybody has experienced it and therefore do not question its usefulness for today’s students and our future economic needs.”

Washington Leadership Academy is already changing the face of education in Washington D.C. The school’s computer-science-for-all policy will triple the number of black students enrolled in AP computer science – and quadruple the number of girls.  The school is also one of just a handful of schools across the country making virtual reality a pillar of its curriculum. But co-founder Seth Andrew said he wants to see more schools adopt a similar approach to education. That’s why Washington Leadership Academy makes its curriculum available to copy and revise on an open-source development platform.  “We’re asking teachers and principals to steal it and make it their own,” he said.

Andrew stresses that everything the school has built so far was funded with public dollars and is “100 percent sustainable,” meaning it’s feasible for other schools to do the same.  One goal of Andrew’s is to develop a virtual reality chemistry lab that can reach students who might not have access to a real-world lab. There, he says, students could learn from the best teachers in a safe environment.  As for what the distant future holds in terms of educational development, the school’s founders are intrigued to explore the use of holographic technology, which would allow educators from all over the world to virtually visit classrooms.

When imagining the next advances of education, Andrew is often reminded of something he heard Valladares say about virtual reality’s endless possibilities for education. “She said, ‘If virtual reality is infinite, that means education is infinite.’”

In Vermilion, we will be watching advances in the Virtual Realty area to determine the feasibility of integrating the new technology into our curricular offerings in the future.  By accepting the changing face of education, we make learning relevant and continue to prepare our students for the future.  Hopefully, the success of these programs in these test schools will help make the technology affordable for public schools across the nation.



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