Roxbury school to launch Internet learning classroom

Photo of check presented to Roxbury Central School by GRLIC for a new media and technology center at the school. Courtesy of Jenn Schuman.

With school budgets under fierce pressure, and enrollments dropping throughout the region, many local schools are contemplating radical measures like school closings and district mergers.

Not Roxbury Central School. At this small Delaware County school, which hosts about 400 children from pre-K through 12th grade in one building on Roxbury's Main Street, officials are seeking to try a different kind of consolidation: Teaching via the Internet.

In a recent editorial in the Daily Star, superintendent Thomas O'Brien and board of education president Edward Fersch laid out a case for bringing more digital teaching into the classroom:

Many school districts in this area cover more than one hundred square miles and have fewer than five hundred students. Our school busses travel over all the back roads where the one-room schoolhouses used to be; children in some districts are on the bus for an hour. Further physical consolidation will necessarily mean more time on a school bus and less time in a classroom. Is this really the best way to provide quality educational opportunities in our area?

Today, new communication technologies are changing the world. Internet connections, video conferencing and other forms of digital technology have made it possible for us to communicate in real time with more and more people. Our generation needs to realize the potential of this technology to transform education in our time. We no longer need the school bus to bring students to the teacher; we can use this new technology to bring the teacher to the students. Teachers in one building can conduct a class containing students in many other places. Students can collaborate on projects with their peers who attend another school. People with similar interests can learn together no matter where they go to school. Rather than using a school bus to physically consolidate our school districts, we can use digital technology to cyber-consolidate them!

It looks like Roxbury will have the chance to put some of its brave-new-world ideas into action. On April 5, the Greater Roxbury Learning Initiative Corporation, a local nonprofit dedicated to the support of technology and science education, announced a $250,000 grant to the Roxbury Central School to build a new digitally-equipped media and technology center.

The superintendent writes that gifts like these usually go to athletic pursuits:

Superintendent of RCS, Thomas J. O’Brien states, “The Numann Media and Technology Center, in honor of 1949 graduate Guy Numann, is an incredible gift of generosity that will help RCS and the larger community for years to come. This is a unique gift as many of these types of donations are directed toward athletics or other co-curricular activities. The purpose of this gift is to heighten our student’s core academic experience and enrich it through meaningful after-school offerings. RCS is honored to enter into this partnership to ensure the district has the opportunity to be a leader in the development of 21st century learning skills.”

Free distance learning and online teaching are currently undergoing a kind of renaissance outside of traditional classrooms, with top-notch universities like Stanford and MIT offering free online courses, and new educational startups like Khan Academy reaching millions of people across the world. But can distance learning work for elementary and high school kids?

It appears many schools think so: A survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that over half of U.S. school districts had students enrolled in distance learning programs in the 2009-2010 school year -- a number that surely is on the rise.