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Forward-Thinking, Flexible, Functional: Education that Prepares You for Life

 By: Sarah Depew

I am an educational trailblazer. After attending a brick and mortar high school my freshman year, I decided to change direction and select the academic road less traveled. By choosing an online, college preparatory school, I discovered and experienced the myriad flexibilities and possibilities that exist when you combine education with technology. Enrolling at The George Washington University Online High School (GWUOHS) changed my life by permitting me to maintain my love of learning, strengthen my web of cross-curricular connections, hone my ability to see the big picture, and evolve my self-motivation. Electing to participate in an innovative, virtual learning environment that appeared at the click of a computer mouse enabled me to navigate cutting-edge learning opportunities and benefit from a forward- thinking, flexible, functional education.

Just twenty years ago, the forward-thinking, revolutionary idea that students from around the globe would someday be able to connect using an online learning interface facilitated by global software programs seemed farfetched and improbable, if not impossible. However, that is the reality I lived the past three years. While attending The George Washington University Online High School, I learned from an entirely online-based curriculum, downloaded and read digital copies of many of my school books, textbooks, and novels; interacted with my teachers and fellow students via software programs such as Skype and Blackboard Collaborate; and connected with a group of students participating from as far away as India and Costa Rica and as close as Monument, Colorado and Washington, D.C. Many of our connections occurred through virtual classes, clubs, community service, and National Honor Society. Virtual learning taught me a significant amount about the doors to the future that can open when you couple modern technology with education.

Much as the Gutenberg printing press revolutionized the world by enabling the wider dissemination of books, virtual learning, using the latest innovations in technology and communications, is revolutionizing education by enabling students to be truly self-driven, self- regulating, and self-benchmarking, regardless of educational level, gender identity, race, or social status. Learning using online platforms further expands the capabilities of technology to equalize and unite. Through our school’s website interface, my fellow students and I accessed the same information, often at the same time, across the globe. We enjoyed unfettered, unencumbered educational opportunities, while accessing these instantaneous channels of information, data, and instruction. This access facilitated interconnected learning and opened up the potential for us to thrive on our own terms. Subsequently, in our weekly classes, we would take this information and use software programs such as Blackboard, which created a virtual classroom setting, and discuss, ponder, question, analyze, and compile information about the learning and texts while in our respective global locations. These learning opportunities thereby prepared us for the globalized society and technology infused world in which we currently live and will continue to inhabit during our lifetimes.

The uniquely distinct and preparatory worldwide connectivity, when coupled with the type of unprecedented freedom and flexibility an online, technology-based school affords students, allows for potentially unmitigated international, educational, and personal growth opportunities. Due to the online nature of GWUOHS, I experienced increased freedom to explore academic interests in the form of extremely varied as well as in-depth and challenging course offerings, flexibility to explore extracurricular engagements supported by my self-designed scheduling, the ability to take learning at my own pace, and the opportunity to reinforce learning through travel. Rather than having mandatory attendance requirements for certain hours in a building, my classmates and I had the opportunity to balance learning with passions and productive pursuits.

For example, my fellow students and I re-allocated our hours to blend classwork with diverse interests such as spending time in a dance studio perfecting technique, starting a new business, interning to learn about the real world applications of economics and cyber security, journeying out into our communities to give back, and traveling to experience different cities and cultures. My fellow classmates and I restructured our sports practices, volunteering, school clubs, travels, and “nine-to-five" class schedules to profit from meaningful and rigorous learning opportunities and real-life engagement. By connecting virtual learning with our life interests, we melded two worlds into one reality. A reality forged through a simple Internet connection combined with a conference room or car, dance studio or library, museum or new culture, to become a virtual classroom linking us across the globe. We learned to integrate the real world and all its opportunities, as well as challenges, with our classroom-based learning.

Further, flexibility amplified learning support. Technology provided an even more expansive platform where questions could be answered, lines of inquiry encouraged, and learning could ensue. Available over the phone, synchronous live sessions, Skype, email, and virtual learning classrooms using Blackboard software, my teachers were more accessible and able to multitask more readily than my brick and mortar educators ever were. With an honor code covering all student work and communications, my teachers had assurances similar to a classroom setting where teachers can observe student behavior first hand, if not more assurance. For example, our papers were turned in using Turnitin, a software program assessing the uniqueness of our writing versus potential plagiarism. From video calls to instant messaging, teachers at GWUOHS are able to connect with their students around the globe without sacrificing communication capability. Questions could still be answered, students could still receive guidance, teachers could still observe learning, but all of these actions could occur internationally with integrity.

One of the resulting effects of combining a forward-thinking learning platform, with increased teacher availability, and real world application was a renewed and an increased love of learning. My school’s versatility enabled the blending of travel, exploration, connection, and inquiry, thereby presenting me with opportunities to foster my intellectual passions in places and in ways that cannot occur in a brick and mortar setting. Through my interconnected experiences, the sheer availability of information, passionate teaching, ability to dig deeper, and have one-on- one time with teachers and counselors, my fire for learning was stoked and rekindled. Rather than being constrained by classroom hours or the amount of material that needed to be covered, I received encouragement to ask questions and think outside the box in a completely peer pressure-free environment. Never was I informed my question was “incorrect,” “wrong,” or that there was not enough time to answer; a teacher never turned away a question or stomped out a line of inquiry. This flexibility to inquire and delve deeper honed and refined my love of learning.

Subsequently, my love of learning manifested itself throughout my virtual high school experience and fueled my desire to embrace the practical applications of my learning. That desire showed during my time as a student editor in GWUOHS’ writing center to the plethora of questions I asked at museums, from a strategically planned trip to Washington D.C. that permitted me to explore the Smithsonian museums uninterrupted for days to my Girl Scout Gold Award project where I published an eighty page book of Chemistry experiments for upper  elementary-age homeschool students. GWUOHS’ flexible, yet rigorous, learning environment maintained and promoted my love of learning and proved that learning can happen whenever, wherever, and however a student chooses when the internet and technology are embraced and involved.

Further, GWUOHS distinctly provided my fellow students and me with a means of practicing global leadership, interaction, and communication skills that will be irreplaceable for our lifetimes. From a National Honor Society service project that included students from Texas to California to North Carolina to India and resulted in over a 1,000 dollar donation to help build schools in Sierra Leone a year before the Ebola crisis struck that part of the world to the ability to complete school assignments while overseas in Paris, France, I am more prepared to be a contributing leader in the globally interconnected world in which we now live. Unbound by geographical boundaries, GWUOHS facilitated, even required, global interaction and practical applications of global leadership.

In addition to regular global connectivity, my fellow students and I also benefited from using an online platform that barred us from meeting one another face-to-face. Yes, I did get to know everyone in my school via the writing they did for discussion modules, questions they asked in class, activities they discussed in college planning sessions, the clubs they joined, and, potentially, their Skype photographs, which were not necessarily of them, but I never actually met all but a few of them in person until I graduated. This lack of in-person contact meant we literally could not judge our classmates by their “covers.” My school has a unique ability to take technology’s unification capabilities and transmit that to classrooms. Without involving race, sexual identity, religious affiliations, height, weight, or gender, my classrooms were uniquely prejudice-free. Students got to know one another based upon a platform of contribution, character, and community interaction rather than misconceptions; a capability we sorely need in our world.

Finally, because of my classroom experiences and through not being able to view my fellow classmates’ grades at any time during my educational years at GWUOHS, I now have the ability to be completely self-motivated, self-contained, and self-driven. My class of twenty-nine graduates had no class ranking. I set my own schedule for tests, exams, papers, labs, and assignments, with the caveat of observing certain weekly, monthly, and quarterly deadlines. Most importantly, all my grades were not curved, my GPA was not weighted, every grade I received I could never, nor did I desire to, compare it to my peers. My school made me a functional self-focused, not selfish mind you, human being who knows how to set personal benchmarks and ignore the people sitting to her left and right.

Comparable to the effect garnered by cell phones, laptops and Internet technologies, virtual learning changes boundaries. Cell phones, laptops and the Internet moved communication, research, and education once housed in buildings with walls beyond those walls and across the globe. Similarly, virtual learning restructures how learning takes place. A virtual high school connects students with their classes, their teachers, their love of learning, and their futures - all in a surreal cyberspace of worldwide connectivity. Though changing boundaries of education, technology-infused learning uniquely equips students to interact meaningfully with and within an increasingly global community. The George Washington University Online High School revolutionized my education and transformed my life by offering me access to a global, practical learning landscape. Using this opportunity, I self-directed and self-designed a highly functional, flexible, cutting-edge trailblazing journey that transformed me into the confident, caring, open-minded, and capable global citizen I am today. In other words, my education prepared me for life.