A virtually perfect excuse not to go to school


For many years, laptops, Blackberrys and mobile phones have allowed people to live a nomadic existence.

In today's busy world businessmen can be in London in the morning and Los Angeles in the afternoon.

And there are a few places where this is more apparent than in the UAE where people come and go at a rapid pace meaning access to offices across the globe is a necessity. But while adults have offices around the world, the same cannot be said for a child's school.

Yet this is changing with the arrival of the K12 International Academy – a United States-based online school that has recently set up an office in Knowledge Village. This allows students the opportunity to continue with their studies wherever their family settles.

Executive Vice-President Bruce Davis says: "Online learning has proved to be an effective way to get an education, and for some students it works extremely well. It is very accepted in the United States but the international community is beginning to value it more."

The company, which is named after the US school year system – kindergarten to grade 12 – started nine years ago with kindergarten to grade three. Grades built each year until the final two were introduced in 2006.

Dubai is its first establishment outside the US, but other offices are in the pipeline including Moscow, Japan and New Delhi.

"Growth in the US has been so rapid that international expansion did not make sense until we had a full portfolio," says Davis, whose eldest son is one of many children just taking one class [science] at K12 to complement his studies at a traditional school.

Although undergoing primary and secondary education online is a new trend, universities have been doing it for years with the Open University (OU) in the United Kingdom leading the way.

More than two million people have passed through its portal since it began in 1971 and having students work at their own pace, while not having to be in a lecture theatre, is one of the benefits, says Niall Sclater, its Director of the Virtual Learning Environment.

"Flexibility is one of the biggest plus points and there is a range of modules and pathways to follow," he says.

But Sclater believes adopting these principles for university is completely different to children.

He says: "Children may not have the self-discipline to study completely on their own. There are exceptions to this, but youngsters need a teaching environment. They can do elements online but to complete their entire school career like this is, I feel, not appropriate."

Davis, however, insists that internet-based learning can, in some cases, be better for a child, especially those who excel over their peers. The system can also help children with disabilities or behavioural problems.

Davis cites attention deficit disorder (ADD) as one example because online learning allows children to work when they want. "The belief that social skills are only learnt at school is misguided," says Davis.

"Children are not at a disadvantage using a computer for their education and we go to great lengths to establish a community for them."

Ongoing research by the British University in Dubai (BUiD) into the impact of technology in education is further proof that this new form of schooling is becoming more widespread. The study is currently looking at whether the introduction of computers into the classroom has had benefits for children in the Middle East.

And it's senior lecturer Dr Clifton Chadwick believes: that "teachers need to compensate the mechanical tendencies of the computer and ensure that the medium does not distort educational ends". Last December, K12 took a new step in the business world by listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Following this it has grown at a rate of 35 per cent. Although Davis admits they are turning a profit, it is not huge, with the proceeds from the IPO being ploughed back into building the company around the world.

With fees set at $6,000 (Dh22,020) a year, Davis says it is also cheaper than many other private schools in the UAE, a fact he thinks will appeal to many parents.

He says: "Money often dictate which school parents send their children to, but schooling can be cheaper using internet because we don't have to pay for buildings or equipment."

However, while the majority of time is spent online, there is some student-teacher interaction.

While some students sit in virtual classrooms, using a webcam, those in the UAE and the US can opt for some face-to-face lessons.

Children are also given the opportunity to join extra curricular activities, such as chess and art online or do something in the real world such as performing arts or horse riding. This says Davis encourages social and community interaction.

Although K12 has not yet had a child graduate through the entire system, Davis says he does not foresee any problems with doing so and believes results will show how beneficial the system is. "We will have to wait and see how the results compare to traditional schooling, but in terms of student numbers, we are growing at 50 per cent a year.

"With more and more families moving around the world it is necessary that children have a secure education system and we are serving those people."


The numbers

39,000: K12 students around the world

6,000: US dollars for one year's tuition

25.80: The latest NYSE share price of K12