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Education | 5 Minutes

From Earth to Sky: Moving to Online Classical Christian Education - Part 3

Tom Garfield Written by Tom Garfield
From Earth to Sky: Moving to Online Classical Christian Education - Part 3

Remember that mental image I described previously of the mythical home-schooled kids, i.e. sort of young versions of Neo in the beginning of The Matrix? Well, the reality is far from that warped view. I should have known that, of course, but it still came as a very pleasant surprise. Online schools don’t have the corner on nerdy kids per capita it’s about the same as in physical schools. And even the nerds are some of the most loveable and often the most tech-wise, helpful kids.

The reality of the difference in context (physical vs online) struck me about half way through my first year with VSA: instead of ‘inviting’ these students to drive to a physical school and classroom, our families are inviting me (and all their other teachers) into their homes. I get to literally see where and how they live, to some degree. And, yeah, that means little brothers or sisters wander by, or more often, a cat or dog shows up on webcam. I have been invited into students’ homes in Brazil, Canada, Dominican Republic, China, London, numerous states, including Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to name a few.

Plus, the kids get to know and like their classmates, just like in physical rooms. They comment on each other’s art works, usually encouragingly. In short, they love to socialize and will do so through the classes, just like in physical classes. As with physical schools, we get to know the students far better than we know their parents for obvious reasons. I do miss seeing and chatting with parents before and after school, during Back-to-School Nights and extracurricular events. But there are ways to regularly communicate with the parents through frequent updates to the course page, sort of like weekly news from the classroom. Then of course there are parent group emails, or just individual contacts for various reasons.

Another tremendous blessing of online classical ed for the parents is that it is literally much closer to home. I have seen quite a few moms, and some dads, in the background during my art classes. They don’t usually pop in (as I might be tempted to), but they are seeing first-hand what is happening in their child’s class, while it happens. But what about when the parents are not physically there? Well, every class is recorded as an archive. This is so that if kids miss a class, they can view it anyway (a major plus), but obviously the parents can do the same thing. As a former school administrator, I can assure you there were numerous times I sincerely wished we had had a camera in a classroom. Imagine how that would change the ‘child said’ vs the ‘teacher said’ situations... Yeah, at VSA we don’t have too many of those issues. The archives give a level of accountability that benefits both the parents and the teachers.

What about the quality of the teachers? Here too, I had unfair and ungrounded assumptions about the people that teach online classes. I may not be alone in the prejudice I had; I often assumed that these were people who were not able to get a job at a “real” school. Isn’t that awful? I had no experience or knowledge to support that view. In my new job I started not only working with the VSA teachers as an evaluator, but I have been in on many applicant interviews (online, of course). To say I’ve had my bias blown away would be an understatement! These teachers are of a very high caliber. And, as Marlin Detweiler often states, we seek world-class teachers and we seek them from literally around the world. We have quite a few amazing science teachers, for instance, who are moms with little ones at home. They can teach a few classes and never have to use daycare or drive across town to a school building. So we get their skills and knowledge and also support their convictions to be at home.

Just like the students, we have teachers working from all around the world, bringing not only their knowledge of their discipline, but also introducing their students to some fantastic cultural aspects.

My main job at VSA is to observe and evaluate these teachers at least five times a year, so I get to see them in action quite a bit. However, unlike the many observations I did at Logos, at VSA I’m invisible and can see the entire class time, if I want, by using the archives. I have come to greatly appreciate the collegial fellowship as believers and peers these teachers express. The ‘staff room’, the Faculty Group page, is always full of notes of encouragement or asking for prayer or seeking tech or pedagogical help. In other words, real teachers interacting positively!

Hopefully I have given you some idea of what classical Christian education can look like in an online context. The memorable blessings, as they do in all classical schools, come from working with our students and being able to point to Christ in every single class. The challenges, too, are pretty much the same as in physical schools, i.e. working with fallen humans as students with issues, as families who don’t always ‘get it’, as teachers who are not perfect and can make poor judgement calls.

The bottom line is this: it works! I love the new mental image I now have when I see the kids start filling the classroom. It’s a classroom without walls, bringing together students who are actually separated by thousands of miles, but seeing and hearing each other, and spending 90 minutes talking, laughing, praying and working as one class.

I’ve already confessed to you my prior prejudices, that is regarding online education as, at best, substandard. I now stand corrected in my views: when done well, as all our teaching should be, there is nothing to apologize for in doing it online. Instead, as the tech improves and more and more Christian families finally wake up to the disaster of the government schools, VSA and other online schools will be there, along with our physical sister classical schools to help those parents train up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.