Today I met with Robin Gonzalez, Manager of Chicago Public Schools Virtual Schools. We talked about how her online learning models helped 1,000 students grduate last year by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles to their success. She helped me put an urban youth experience into perspective. Here are some of her prescient comments about online learning.

One of the things that was very clear is that she’s noticed that a lot of urban students already are turning online to learn. They are going around the bricks and mortar offers.

Online is Already Here

“People discount the degree to which students are individualizing their own learning,” says Gonzalez. “When they don’t know or understand something, they are turning to YouTube to see how something is done. They are reaching out to their peers for social networking even more than we realize.”

Still, there needs to be more money given to technology acquisition, not just because tech solves things, but because the type of tech in the hands of students and teachers matters. It either amplifies the teaching and learning experience, or it squashes the human element, when things don’t work, or software and devices are outdated.

Gonzalez stresses that technology improves education; it amplifies the human element of the interaction between the struggling student and the teacher with solutions.

Says Gonzalez: “I hope that people start to realize the increase in violence and the increase in povery and desperate situations can be remedied by education. When you look at per-pupil funding, compared to a surburban district, our students are doing with less. Our kids are hit twice. They lack tech in school. And they lack educational opportunities at home.”
Gonzalez sees that education tries to resolve this issue, but that so far, education solutions involving tech are made out of fear and a need for a control, rather than a feeling of openness. “But that’s not where they want to be. I think we need to go where they are, rather than where we want them to be,” says Gonzalez.

“The whole theory is that online education allows you to go places you were not going to go to before. When you are online communicating with people with other opinions, it has the power to remedy some of the ills we see in disengranchesed communities.”

Offering Online to Struggling Students, Creating Better Graduation Rates

So Gonzalez has been working very hard to spread the opportunity to as many urban students as possible. She feels that by putting the online learning into the hands of the learners with the highest needs, the experience will produce the most beneficial impact.

“During the school year, I started the year with a goal that we would have a thousand more graduates,” says Gonzalez.

In a typical year, Chicago Public Schools graduate 12,000 to 13,000 which is probably 50% of what it should be.

“If you fail a course that 19 other students didn’t fail, where are you going to get it? That happened all the time. Kids went here there and everywhere to get the credits they needed to graduate,” says Gonzalez.

As a result, students were being eliminated from their eventual success and graduation because they didn’t make all their credits on time, for various life issues and home issues. They were basically being taught that they had to scramble to beat the system, and the system was not working for them.

Gonzalez says that the online learning freed up teachers to help with classroom students, but also helped online students get the courses they needed, without fear of losing time. Counselors didn’t have to say the course was closed, and or you have to go all the way across town. A student had what he wanted, right there.

“Now we have this system, where you can get anything you need, any time you want it. It changed everything in the district.”

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