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Virtual World, Meet the Classroom

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When I started college years ago, most people didn’t quite understand the World Wide Web: we logged on at the library, inadvertently sending mail from other people’s Hotmail accounts. Without the benefit of Google, our web surfing was limited to bidding on Ebay and the occasional foray onto music video Web sites. The web was still novelty—interesting, but not altogether very useful.

But now the Web has gotten bigger—or smaller. As the popularity of blogging, chat rooms, and internet forums expands, we are able to make connections across philosophical boundaries and continents. These days, some folks spend as much time in the virtual world as in the real world, and teachers are no exception. The virtual world has become more than just child's play.

I got introduced to my first virtual classroom through a program called Tutor.com, an online tutoring service that serves students all over the US. Housed primarily in public libraries, Tutor.com offers help with assignments for elementary students through college-age. 

The gist of it is this: students log on anonymously and are connected to a tutor within a few seconds. On their screen, they each can see a whiteboard and several buttons. There is also a chat window—much like those they’d see in Yahoo Chat or AIM—where students can describe how they’d like to be assisted for that session. 

Tutors take several rigorous tests before being hired into a subject area or areas, and many tutors are former classroom teachers themselves. 

It sounds sterile, but learning happens! That makes me wonder: what can technology add to teaching and learning?

Think about it: our public schools are largely segregated, overcrowded, and expensive. Could virtual classrooms be a way to level the playing field? Even without ditching traditional schooling altogether, can schools improve by merging students’ and teachers’ virtual worlds with their real lives?

Jim Brown is exploring just that. He and others use social networking sites like MySpace to complicate students’ thinking about book characters or think about issues such as artistic property and public/private academic lives.

Can you see the World Wide Web as a tool for teaching? Weigh in here. You can also email me at aleshaj@thenotebook.org.

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