Personalizing Education at Stanford’s Online High School

Posted by Michael Simkins on June 17, 2007

It was a sunny June morning in 1996, one of my last days as a principal. Soon, I would be in a new job in a new world—directing a large scale education technology “innovation” project spanning several school districts in Silicon Valley. A reporter from the local newspaper had come to campus to interview me about my years at the school and plans for the future.

One of the questions he asked was, “What do you see as the value of technology in education?” Answering was easy. “Two things. First, I think it can add efficiency to the way we manage schools and accomplish daily tasks. More importantly, I think it can enable us to personalize education far more than we do today.” More than ten years later, I hold the same view.

We’ve made a lot of progress on the efficiency side of things. We’ve put technology to work storing and managing student data, scheduling busses, and making our schools safer. Frustratingly, it seems to be taking us a lot longer to realize the potential of technology to make education more personal and engaging for students.

That’s why I was excited to read in today’s Los Angeles Times about Stanford University’s Online High School. Part of the University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, it is in its infancy and has only 30 students, but so far seems a success.

As staff writer Mitchell Landsberg writes, “The Stanford program intertwines two uneven threads in modern education: online learning and differentiated instruction for the gifted. As it turns out, it’s a natural marriage, and one that underscores the potential for computers to help break down the one-size-fits-all paradigm of many U.S. schools.”

Amen. And, in my experience, what’s good for the gifted is quite often good for the rest of us as well. Whether we’re talking about learning styles, English language learners, multiple intelligences, special needs, or just plain old varying interests, differentiating instruction makes sense. The Online High School is an example of how technology can help us do it.

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Michael Simkins

Michael Simkins is Consulting Director of TICAL — the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership. Prior to that he was director of the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project and also served as COO of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network. He was an elementary schoolteacher for 17 years and an elementary principal for 9 years. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, when it was still a “sleepy beach town.”