Blended Learning Is Reforming U.S. Education With Roots In Rhode Island
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Blended Learning Is Reforming U.S. Education With Roots In Rhode Island

It’s human endeavor that involves will and wanting to be successful.

Blended Learning Is Reforming U.S. Education With Roots In Rhode Island

Over the last several years, I’ve read dozens of articles about the unfavorable consequences of technology and blended learning in United States classrooms. Criticism of this up-and-coming learning model goes in two directions; one being that it devalues teachers and replaces them with a machine, and the other that students risk becoming too hyper-focused on learning that they lack the ability to be social. Robert Pilkington, founder and superintendent of The Village Green Virtual Charter School in Providence, Rhode Island, is an enthusiast of blended-learning and is of the mindset that educational acceleration is a very powerful thing. He believes that “the ability to gain time and accelerate your learning is a wonderful potential,” and stands strong in his beliefs that blended-learning is the future of the U.S. Education.

The concept for The Village Green Virtual Charter School (“VGV”) began in 2001 when Corine Hadley, chair of the national state board of education, wrote an article entitled, “Any Time, Any Place, Any Path, Any Pace.” This article foreshadowed an upcoming distance-learning revolution. At the time, Pilkington had constructed a Village Green concept paper that was sent to the Department of Education telling them that there would be a forthcoming application for a blended-learning school. At the time the application was sent, there was a moratorium on charter schools. It was thought that the moratorium was going to end in 2006, but unfortunately for Pilkington, it didn’t, so his application languished at the Department of Education. Finally in 2011, Pilkington was contacted by the Department of Education to do a Carpe Diem-like replication in Rhode Island, an opportunity with which he jumped at, and in September 2013, VGV was opened.

VGV uses a curriculum model called Edgenuity, which is a credit-recovery program that the school has implemented as a comprehensive school-wide curriculum. One of the school’s challenges by design is how to take a product that is not used as a school curriculum and turn it into one. The school’s learning model is online instruction by a virtual and prerecorded teacher with physical in-classroom teacher support. Most of VGV’s students did not grow up with blended learning, so for these students, learning how to use Edgenuity was a difficult obstacle to overcome. Pilkington recommends that these students take advantage of the resources within the program either re-watching a video or visiting an external resource like Khan Academy for support.

When I asked Pilkington how he had imagined the success of the school when it started, he shrugged, saying that “it’s really hard to tell you what I envisioned, to tell you the truth. Nobody else was doing this, it was hard to know what it would turn into, and it was hard to forecast a hypothetical without context.” He told me that much of his success is owed to his co-founders, Rochelle Baker and John Butler, as well as the teachers and the original students who were pivotal in the success of the school and have become e-learning pioneers.

Being such an alternative way of learning, I wondered how Pilkington, who has founded a multitude of schools, evaluated the current system of education. He stood strong in his beliefs that the system isn’t as broken as people think it is. He doesn’t believe that the current system of education is a failed system, adding that it’s remarkable that there are so many capable young people who are doing such extraordinary things, and describes 21st century learners as progressive. Pilkington thinks that what’s happened is that there’s been a “change in the way we perceive what work is and what intelligence is." Going further to argue that since we aren’t seeing the “old-school demonstration of intelligence” that intelligence has become nonexistent, and “that’s not true.”

Classrooms at VGV are very small and very personalized, containing no more than 12 students. Aside from these classrooms, there are large learning centers (called LC’s) that hold anywhere from 34 to 64 students who work at cubicles that hold virtual desktop terminals where students can be very independent. Teacher roles have changed from being the sole instructor at the front of a classroom to being more of a data analyst and skill-gap interventionist. The Edgenuity program is for students who are both industrious and task-oriented, so sometimes the online teacher is the only help that they need in a course. At VGV, teachers are no longer the sole purveyor of information nor are they the grader of all of the work either. Pilkington says that the model of the school has allowed for teachers to build a better relationship and rapport with their students.

The aforementioned idea of acceleration that frequently is associated with online schools has caused Pilkington and other educational leaders to grapple with the new question, “is it skill or is it will?” According to Pilkington, “in education, we’ve always thought that if there was a gap in learning, that it was caused by a lack of skills. [At VGV], if there is a gap of learning, you might be very skillful but you may not have the will to do the hard work independently and on an accelerated basis.” Obviously, blended-learning schools like VGV aren’t for everyone, and there are some students who decide that this model isn’t for them because they prefer going to class and the lack of accountability. Which, says Pilkington, is OK because even if a student isn’t completely and overwhelmingly happy at the school, they find it’s a good alternative and tend to go along with it because it works. Pilkington has also dealt with his fair share of critics and skeptical visitors. VGV isn’t a personnel reduction strategy, and he states that the school doesn’t have fewer teachers that are replaced by online ones. The school also isn’t a place where there is no socialization, and laughs when he says, “[VGV] is a highly social place, with lots of talking and lots of interaction.”

A student’s success at VGV isn’t solely based on their willingness to learn and succeed, says Pilkington. Success is a combination of things, “it’s human endeavor that involves will and wanting to be successful. Nobody is successful because they were made to be successful, the person has to be willing to put in the time.” Pilkington believes that a student at VGV must be committed to their own success. He notes that you can’t discount the impact of the human teacher to make a person feel successful, as it’s the human teacher, not the computer, who will give you the pat on the back, and that’s what counts the most.

As for the future of blended learning, Pilkington suspects that it will become more ubiquitous and more sophisticated as the software product becomes better. He mentions that there are elementary school students getting miniature VGV experiences everywhere, and when these students reach the high school level, he predicts that this will be when VGV will really hit its stride. Pilkington admires his current students for their dedication to the program and refers to them as e-learning pioneers because they didn’t grow up with blended learning. Students entering the school as freshmen are being taught how to be independent at the age of 14 and 15-years-old. “I’m sometimes amazed that we’re doing as well as we are,” says Pilkington. “I think that Village Green’s best days are ahead of them because our teachers will only get better at teaching blended learning, and we’ll get kids who have been doing blended learning for 10 years, and that’s very intriguing to me.” To think that VGV has done everything it has done with people who have been completely untrained to do what they’re doing is amazing.

The interview I held with Pilkington was extremely personal to me, as I myself had the privilege of attending VGV when it first opened. At the time of my application to the school, I was finishing my freshman year of high school and was struggling to find alternatives from the public school system I had grown up in. Pilkington and I built a great relationship in the two years I attended the school. The Village Green Virtual Charter School allowed me to graduate from high school at the end of my Junior year. This provided me with the opportunity-- which I took full advantage of-- to be a full-time college student in what should be my senior year of high school. To me, attending VGV was a matter of my own personal determination, and I am ever so thankful for “Dr. P’s” vision and desire to see not only myself, but my peers, succeed in this groundbreaking environment. VGV is the future of the American education system and to have been a part of a revolutionary part of not only Rhode Island’s history, but the history of U.S. Education is something that I am eternally grateful for.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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