Only five months ago, the idea of a virtual sixth form college was one of many found only in my head. Now the whole project is making headway. There is a group of us working on it, and more than a hundred supporters subscribing to our updates. Things have moved exhilaratingly fast of late, and for me it marks an important transition from theory to practice – practice not just at a personal but at a social level.
As regards the project itself, I will be brief here. The idea is to offer state-funded A Level courses (equivalent to senior high school for Americans) to students in their own homes. Virtual schools are nothing new, and even publicly-funded virtual schools exist in the US, but such schools seem to make little use of video conferencing, which can help make much more supportive connections between teacher and student, and they also don’t seem to be much focused on the 16-19 age group, that is more independent than younger students and thus better able to cope with distance learning. Since I have specialised in teaching 16-19 year olds most of my career, I want to offer a new option for this kind of education that incorporates some of the flexibility of virtual learning from home, but also offers the much higher levels of teaching support and range of specialised A Level courses to be found in a sixth form college. For more about the project, see our website, http://www.vsfc.org.uk .
What does this project have to do with Middle Way Philosophy? Well, nothing formal. I’m certainly not expecting those involved to necessarily take any interest in it, or to necessarily agree with my specific philosophical perspectives. There are already a variety of people involved with a great variety of backgrounds and motives, which is exactly what I would hope. However, it will also be obvious that both Middle Way Philosophy (in the form I have been writing about it) and the Virtual Sixth Form College are my brainchildren, which makes them siblings. There are likely to be various traceable family resemblances. Any educational institution also needs an ‘educational philosophy’ or a ‘vision’ that binds it together.
For me the crucial connecting idea is that of addressing conditions, and of holding the need to do this in balance with ideals. In education ideals often get tediously over-repeated, in the form of educational mission statements, school mottos, or political rallying cries. Every school wants academic excellence and to help their students to develop, so to merely repeat this tells us little. But these ideals will not mean very much unless they are engaged with the conditions created by a particular set of students. Students have varying needs, some of which will probably be best addressed by the conventional education in a school or college currently available. Others, however, might prefer and benefit more from learning virtually at home for a variety of reasons. For example they may be introverts (see previous post Quiet up!), have more specific issues such as school phobia or Asperger’s, live in a remote place, or want to study specialised A Level subjects not available locally.
The insight of the Middle Way applied to education is just that the need to address conditions is itself part of the ideal. We need to avoid rigid metaphysical views either way: either just the assertion of ideals with the insistence that students should be made to fit these ideals, or on the other hand too much acceptance of the current habits of students and a failure to challenge them. We need accept neither the dogmatic freewill belief that claims ‘students just need to make more effort’, nor the dogmatic determinist belief that they are not really capable of developing beyond the frame set up by their background.
I see virtual education as just the part of this balancing that I happen to be involved in. It can provide new opportunities for some students to find the right balance by being educated at more of a remove from an institutional atmosphere. It’s not going to fit the needs of every student, and we shouldn;t make exaggerated claims for it. But virtual education offers exciting new possibilities if we use them wisely.