From the Abacus

to Virtual Schools

Educational technology has improved rapidly throughout the past few years. Online schools, education based on artificial intelligence, and virtual classrooms overarching continents are no longer tools for an unrealistic sci-fi story; they are the present. But to what extent do expectations meet reality?

According to a study published in 2019, around 300,000 children were learning in the 501 virtual schools in the United States during the 2017/18 school year, and they counted altogether 133,000 students in the 300 so-called “blended schools” (meaning schools which combine online and personal education). If we consider that at the time of the study, 56.4 million students started school in September in the United States, these numbers appear to be negligible. However, if we observe that 10 years earlier, this number had barely reached 100,000, and the number of students learning in virtual schools had only been a few thousand at the beginning of the 2000s, it is indisputable that there has been a significant increase.

From the abacus to virtual schools

Ever since learning was regarded as the structured form of getting to know the world, there has been a constant need for tools that make it easier. One of the most well-known tools is actually the oldest one: the abacus had already been used ca. 3000 years before Christ according to Sumerian notes. Production of the chalkboard – which has become the universal symbol for schools – started in the 1840s, and countless classrooms still use it to this day. In the 1960s, led by Richard C. Atkinson, professor of psychology at Stanford University, students of The Primary School in Palo Alto were taught mathematics and how to read using computers. In 1994, the world’s first online high school, a CompuHigh-Whitmore Schoolt, was founded, where students can learn completely at their own pace in an asynchronous education system, supported by teachers online.

The world’s first virtual school was created because a little girl named Amber – even though she was an exemplary student – could not tolerate the school environment or take in the numerous social stimuli she was subject to. After a while, however, her parents realized that they could not educate her further on the level she needed, as she almost immediately finished any book or learning material she was given. Even though the internet was rather undeveloped at the time, Amber’s father realized its potential and included the appropriate professionals in her daughter’s education.

Illustration – Fotó: Csímár Kamilla

What could be given by a virtual school?

A great advantage of virtual schools is that learning material can be personalized, and they provide flexibility in space and time. It is true for most cases that they enable learning anywhere, anytime. This of course depends on the method of online learning as well: classes may be held synchronously or asynchronously, the connection with the teacher – and in certain cases, the former students – may be real, but it is possible to participate in pre-recorded classes as well. The former provides interactivity, while the latter urges students to create their own way and gives space for everyone to proceed at their own pace. It is also good in this case if there is someone to consult with, if there is a teacher/mentor/tutor (online) who guides and facilitates the learning process. This is the reason for the creation of the educational method (combined education) called “blended learning” or “hybrid learning”, which relies on applying digital technology and media tools inside the classroom. Here, the teacher is also a mentor and facilitator: they provide personal contact along with explanation for learning materials, and they regulate the pace of learning together with the student.

Around 2015, when the number of virtual schools in the world skyrocketed, several studies appeared about the system’s useful qualities. From a student perspective, it is a great value that those subject to constant school abuse or those having problems with social interactions can learn in a safe, familiar environment according to their own needs. The market also hoped/hopes that online schools may offer a solution to more large-scale economic problems as well. In the United States, for example, they are trying to compensate for the lack of teachers using courses streamed online. In Uruguay, they are using the internet to provide English teachers teaching in other countries. In countries such as Canada or Australia, where geographical distances interfere with educational accessibility, the virtual classroom may offer a solution to the problem.

Critique of the future

As of today, there are also studies which call our attention to the shortcomings, flaws, and difficulties of online education. The previously mentioned surveys in the United States shed light on the fact that measurable student results are only available in 56% of virtual schools and 50% of hybrid schools – a surprisingly low percentage. This way, it is considerably difficult to conduct real, representative effect examinations in this area. However, it is possible to determine using the data available that neither type brought desired results, nor do they meet the average level represented by the traditional school system. Similarly to critics of homeschooling, critics of virtual schools doubt whether children can develop basic life skills, and they are skeptical about whether a school system which requires no permanent presence could hold the attention and keep the motivation of children to keep them from leaving education altogether

Many skeptical proposals have arisen regarding the teacher’s role. Sir Anthony Francis Seldon, British historian and education researcher outright states in his book written last year ( The Fourth Education Revolutaion: Will Artificial Intelligence Liberate or Infantilise Humanity), that if no steps are made to reform education and the teaching profession, then artificial intelligence may replace teachers altogether within 10 years. There is already an example to Seldon’s proposal in the world, in New Zealand. In 2018, a startup company called Soul Machines created their own AI-based teacher named Will, who teaches children about conscious energy consumption. Will is not simply a voice that speaks the learning material. Will is able to reply to questions and follow the children’s learning results by analyzing their given answers to determine how much they understood what they heard. However, he also has his own limitations, which Seldon considers the foundation for the way out. Even though Will’s knowledge is limited to a narrow area (for now), it is much more important to note that no matter how real the communication is between him and the children, he is unable to do one thing: he cannot simulate relationships nor understand situations that require emotional intelligence, meaning that he is unable to show human presence or experience connections based on emotions. Will is not a human.

He can ask, listen and answer


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