Globalisation, responsibility and virtual schools

Globalisation, responsibility and virtual schools

Glenn Russell

The intersection of globalisation and information technology influences ethical positions and notions of responsibility within businesses and in distance education for school students. As the spatial and temporal distance between student and teacher increases, and is mediated by computers, there have been changes to the ways in which individuals and groups are able to share responsibility for students’ learning. Virtual schools can be seen as the most recent implementation of distance education modes which have used predecessor technologies to educate students for many years. This new learning environment prompts a reconsideration of accepted practices, including questions of how responsibility should be apportioned.

Key Words

educational responsibility

school responsibility

computer mediated communication


distance education

educational technology


We live in a globalised world where individuals draw cultural meanings and ethical values from electronic media and the Internet, as well as from traditional institutions. This is a world where geographic boundaries are proving malleable as information technology (IT) and markets interact across the world. It is an educational context in which Moore (1996) has noted that the power to communicate instantaneously across national borders is accompanied by uncritical assumptions about how we teach, and where, as Chareonwongsak (2002) observes, ‘people have little time to understand and develop ethical stances’ (p. 198).

The bankruptcy in the United States of Enron, and the charging of executives of WorldCom with fraud were events that indirectly arose from the interaction of globalisation and IT. The companies relied extensively on global computer-based systems for their operations, and the nature of the environment in which they operated may well have contributed to irresponsible or morally questionable practices. The medium through which profits are made fosters interconnectedness, a remapping of cultural understandings and a recalibration of accepted standards of behaviour.

There are similarities between the ethical concerns of the business world and some aspects of school education that go beyond coincidence. IT is a key component in both cases. Increasingly, schools are using IT regularly with their students, the Internet is used in classrooms to deliver subject content, and there are even virtual schools where students obtain an education from home via the World Wide Web.

There are now over 100 virtual schools in the United States alone (Clark, 2001), and additional examples can be identified in Canada and Australia. Definitions of virtual schools refer to breaking barriers of time and place (Mittelman, 2001), and the use of online computers to provide some or all of a student’s education (Russell, 2004). The spatial and temporal distancing employed in virtual schools enables students to use their computers when and where it is convenient for them, rather than being subject to meeting at an agreed time in a school building. With this and some other variants of online schooling, the teacher is no longer physically present in the classroom with the students. When IT is used in these educational contexts, it promotes the replacement or modification of experiential learning based on direct teacher contact with a mediated equivalent. In doing so, it changes understandings of education, including notions of accountability and responsibility. The dilemmas emerging from the growth of virtual schools include the allocation of praise or blame for success or failure, and the challenge of reinterpreting accepted wisdom about the way in which that responsibility operates.

In this article, I discuss the nature of responsibility in virtual schooling environments. I trace the notion of responsibility in predecessor forms of distance education, including correspondence schools and schools of the air. I argue that a consequence of this inherited tradition of distance education should be the recognition that some of the problems associated with virtual schools are not new. However, I also contend that as new forms of schooling evolve in globalised information–rich environments, there are additional challenges for contemporary educators. I examine the ways in which that responsibility might operate for groups associated with virtual schools, including teachers, those involved in the IT industry, students and parents, and I argue that individuals and groups should be held accountable for the benefits or disadvantages arising from their involvement in these schools. Radical changes involving online computers and the separation of teacher and learner lead to a reassessment of who is responsible for the learning that takes place.

Prologue: Responsibility in predecessor forms of distance education

Three discrete historical phases, involving print, broadcast and online technologies, can be identified in distance education for school students (Table 1).The modes are cumulative. Hence the introduction of broadcasts (radio and television) meant that both broadcast and print-based (correspondence school notes) modes were in use, and the introduction of online schools saw the continuation of print and broadcast-based modes of distance education.

In Australia, a correspondence school was established in Melbourne in 1914 ‘to meet the needs of isolated children for schooling’ (Correspondence School, 1978, p. 3), while a ‘school of the air’, using two-way radio, commenced radio broadcasts in the Northern Territory in 1951 (School of the Air, 2002).

Others followed this school at Alice Springs, and Ashton (1971) listed thirteen such schools twenty years later. These schools provided a valuable educational service to isolated communities in Australia’s outback. Although students were involved in face-to-face meetings with other class members and the teacher through organised activities, including home visits, school camps and picnics, such contact was rare.

It is a characteristic of all forms of distance education that human agencies (individuals, groups or organisations) can be identified as responsible for students’ learning. While learning can be explained by reference to many factors, only humans can be deemed morally accountable. Some changes in the composition and relative proportion of responsibility assumed can be identified with successive implementations of distance education. Figure 1 illustrates the application of this principle to the School of the Air variant. The relative division of this responsibility is notional.

Figure 1 Principal groups or individuals responsible for students’

education in the ‘school of the air’ variant of distance education

Home supervisor Student Teacher Educational authority

The parents or home supervisors accepted most of the responsibility for students’ education (Ashton, 1971). Lessons were prepared by the remote teacher, usually with support from the Education Department, and were transmitted synchronously at agreed times. Writing of the School of the Air at Canarvon, Fitzpatrick (1983) observed that

The parents … have become in some ways de facto members

of the Department. Quite aside from whatever rights–legal or

moral–they hold as parents of children in the educational

system, they have further fights and entitlements as supervisors

of school of the air students (p. 19).

The teacher, in association with members of the Education Department, would produce lesson materials or correspondence notes for students to use in their lessons. There was rarely any need to call on third parties to produce additional educational materials, although sometimes parents would be asked to use everyday items to help in their children’s teaching.

The relative proportion of these responsibilities was likely to be affected by several factors, including the age of students, the skills of the parent or home supervisor, distractions in the home environment, and the technology used. As students mature, they are more able to accept the responsibility for their own education, but as the subject matter becomes more complex and specialised, it becomes correspondingly more difficult for the home supervisor to offer effective help.

The decision by the teacher or those in the educational authority to use a particular technology could also affect the way in which responsibility could be exercised. McInally (1986) described a School of the Air that used a satellite system, a radio receiver that included a call button to enable students to call their teachers, and headphones. The cumulative effect of these changes was a decrease in the home supervisor’s ability to monitor the students’ learning, but a corresponding increase in the responsibilities of the student and the teacher.

The emergence of the virtual school

The closing years of the twentieth century saw the rapid development and adoption of online technologies in business, education, and the wider community. As with phase 1 and phase 2 implementations of distance education, the introduction of phase 3 schooling modes reflected widespread adoption of the corresponding technology. Distance education students are now increasingly offered classes in online environments. While this involvement may include applications such as the world wide web, email, discussion groups, online chat and video conferencing, it is also characterised by the amount of face-to-face interaction, which can vary from a conventional classroom supplemented by the teacher’s use of the Internet, to its polar opposite, where the student uses a computer from home or elsewhere with little or no face-to-face contact with teachers. The range of virtual schooling types includes a school’s supervision of students, while interactive teaching takes place over the Internet, and the provision of web sites, to enable students to complete homework with parental support. In addition, there are composite virtual schools, such as the one described by Del Litke (1998), where virtual schooling is combined with conventional components to allow for activities such as physical education or to promote socialisation.

In this article, the use of the term virtual school refers primarily to those schools where there is a substantial separation in time and space between the teacher and student. The virtual school student in these schools typically uses an online computer from home or elsewhere under the supervision of a parent or guardian, to access an organised educational program from a more distant provider. This model of virtual schooling has been referred to as the ‘out-of-school’ model of virtual schooling (Schnitz & Young, 2002).

Figure 2 outlines the principal human agents responsible for students’ education in this schooling mode. In this article, I argue that globalisation is associated with an additional category of people who should accept responsibility for students’ learning. The IT industry employees are an important group which in earlier phases of distance education was either non-existent or insignificant.

Figure 2 Principal groups or individuals responsible for

students’ education in the ‘out-of-school variant of virtual schooling

Teacher IT industry employees Student Parent Educational authority

From a custodial viewpoint, students who are below the minimum school leaving age are likely to be in the care of their parents or guardians if they undertake virtual schooling from their homes. However, there is still the question of who is accountable for the success or failure. While it would be possible to assume that responsibility had simply reverted to the parents, there are some reasons to believe that a number of individuals or groups involved with a student’s education continue to share responsibility. These include teachers, parents, employees in the IT industry, students, and educational authorities.

The responsibility of teachers and educational authorities

When teachers use virtual schools to teach students, they continue an accepted tradition in which teachers accept responsibility for the students in their charge. Haynes (1998) outlines the nature of these responsibilities by citing the code of ethics from the Australian College of Education. In part, this states that

Teachers have an obligation to keep abreast of advances in learning

and in theories and strategies of teaching … They are responsible

for what they teach and for the way that they relate to students

(Haynes, 1998, p. 176).

The changing nature of teaching in online computer-based environments provides an opportunity to reflect on its characteristics, and, in particular, on the ways in which changes to the nature of teaching disturb accepted paradigms of education. Teaching in traditional school systems can be understood in terms of a rule of thumb that covers three discrete phases. These involve preparation, face-to-face-teaching, and evaluation. In the first phase, teachers choose the intended content and teaching procedures, and organise the required resources. In the second phase, teachers work in the same room or physical space with students, interact with them and implement what has been planned. In the third and final phase, teachers pack up any resources used, evaluate students’ work, and follow up any outstanding issues with parents or colleagues.

Clearly, such a view of teaching has its limitations. Several exceptions to it immediately arise, including teachers who conduct evaluations in class time, or those who are less thorough and do not prepare for classes. What is apparent, however, in such an understanding of teaching is that the face-to-face component of the educational process teaching is only one part of it. It is nevertheless critical, because the relationships between teachers and students are largely based on classroom interactions. The teacher’s ability to gain immediate feedback about a student’s cognitive and affective understandings or to plan proactively to ensure sound educational outcomes is related to direct and unmediated observations.

If the idea of teachers’ responsibility is unpacked, it will be found to include a legal or moral duty to prevent any physical or psychological harm and to promote learning. It is the teacher’s duty to ensure that students are not injured in class through the actions of themselves or others, and to make certain that appropriate teaching materials and practices are used in the classroom.

Teaching acts can still occur without the physical presence of students, as Smith (1956) observes, but the ability to monitor behaviour and academic progress is reduced. If a student attends a virtual school where a computer is used to access interactive lessons, web sites and materials, the online teacher will not be able to observe body language and behavioural cues as effectively as a conventional teacher. Virtual teaching tends to use asynchronous communication tools (Rutkowski, 2001), which are likely to include email, web sites, and discussion groups. These are sometimes supplemented by predecessor distance education technologies that send printed notes and other learning materials to the student by mail.

In virtual schooling, there are changes to the control that the teacher can exert on an individual student’s academic progress. In a conventional class, the teacher operates in a real time synchronous mode that allows for effective monitoring and frequent feedback. The teacher can keep students on task with an array of pedagogical techniques, and can modify the lesson if necessary. However, online school environments are different because a student who is not interested in the lesson can simply turn off the computer. The teacher who views the students’ responses at a later time has a restricted ability both to understand the nuances of the students’ thoughts and to manage the way that learning occurs.

The contention that teachers will continue to share responsibility for student progress in a virtual school environment can be attributed to their more customary role, where teachers have acted as gatekeepers to ensure that appropriate materials and techniques are used with students. In this sense, teachers’ roles are consistent with what they have always been in a traditional school environment. They are widely seen to be part of a professional group whose responsibility is to promote good and minimise harm. Their duty includes the appropriate choice of pedagogy and teaching materials in both traditional and online environments.

In this respect, responsibility for most student behaviour in a virtual school is not eliminated, but there is a redistribution of responsibility towards teaching and learning. For example, a teacher who learns that a student has been unsettled by online materials or even extraneous events would still have an obligation to contact the student’s parents to ensure that no harm resulted. In many cases, however, parents would be in a better position than teachers to monitor behaviour and take any necessary action.

While the learner and teacher are usually separated in virtual schools, the converse can be true of parents and students, as there is a tendency for the mode of learning to promote cooperation between students and parents. In the related area of home schooling, positive family relationships have been seen as one worthwhile result of removing students from a traditional schooling system (Mayberry, Knowles, Ray & Marlow, 1995).

However, there are also disadvantages. The reduction in face-to-face teaching may lead to misunderstandings, and some subjects by their nature may require inspection of a finished product or direct experiential student participation. Teachers may also find that they are inadequately trained to accept the changed responsibilities characteristic of virtual schools. Although there may be a reduced need for teachers to use skills in face-to-face behaviour management, it is likely that they will need greater expertise in software evaluation, psychology, educational sociology, and strategies for teaching with online computer systems.

In addition, teachers may be unable to exercise their responsibilities effectively in online learning if others mandate the teaching materials, structures, and methods that they are to use. When teachers have used educational technology with their students in the past, there has been a trend referred to by Tyack and Cuban (1995) as teacher proofing. This involves instructional designers’ practice of leaving teachers out of the loop by designing comprehensive packages of materials. In such an event, a distinction can be drawn between the responsibility that is derived from the implementation of broad goals by an educational authority and a teacher’s choice about content and method to suit a particular group. As Strike, Hailer and Soltis (1998) argue, the professional staff of a school and the community of citizens living in a district comprise two elements of a democratic school community. Where an elected school board, for example, insists on a particular educational emphasis, its views would usually be expected to prevail, but it would also expect the responsibility that goes with this decision. Similarly, in the operation of a virtual school, teachers would normally expect to be responsible for those aspects of curriculum, such as online relationships with students, while other parts of it would be more appropriately referred to others.

Despite this observation, there remains an overriding moral imperative for teachers to object to procedures and policies that they believe are harmful, even when a group such as an educational authority is normally responsible for them. Katzman and Hodas (1995) cite the example of a review of textbooks that contained false information. In an equivalent situation, virtual teachers would face the responsibility of deciding whether to direct students to web sites containing misleading information.

The IT industry and responsibility

As virtual schooling becomes more established, some economies may be made in purchasing materials from IT companies, rather than asking teachers to prepare them. Arguably, the responsibility for the use of IT in online environments should be shared between the stakeholders responsible for its use. In the case of IT used in education, this is likely to include software producers and other involved in designing and marketing IT systems for the educational market. Collectively, the IT industry seems to have been able to shift some of the responsibility for their actions on to others, for reasons that include notions of individual responsibility and social obligations, knowledge of possible risks, the complexity of IT, cultural differences, and norms of business practice.

Historically, the notion that a person is responsible for his or her actions has been the accepted view. In ancient Babylon, the Laws of Hammurabi described the consequences for those who had engaged in unsound building practices:

If a builder constructs a house for a man but does not make the

work sound, and the house that he constructs collapses and causes

the death of the householder, that builder shall be killed …

(Roth, 1995, p. 125).

Nissenbaum (1994) has also identified the example of Hammurabi’s Laws, and observes that there is a tendency in today’s computer industry for producers of computer systems not to be fully answerable for the impacts of their products. In an interesting perspective on this process, Goodman (1967) maintains that workers are discouraged from reflecting on the ways in which the products they manufacture will affect people.

A corresponding principle can be induced from a study of the IT industry, in that employees who produce web pages, online teaching materials, CD-ROMS and other materials are not always obliged to accept responsibility for what they do. A graphic artist or a program designer of educational materials is asked to complete a particular task in the expectation that the user will decide whether the materials are suitable or not, and not the person who has produced them. The problem is compounded when an employer allocates tasks in such a way that individual reflections on the merits of software are seen as inappropriate or unwelcome. An employee may contribute to software that includes cultural stereotypes, unbalanced representations of gender and ethnicity, promotion of unhealthy lifestyles, or edutainment instead of sound pedagogy. Although IT products may often be beneficial, they also have the potential to cause harm, and workers may not always have the opportunity to express their concerns.

A parallel can be drawn here with the conventional print-based materials that are more characteristic of phase 1 of distance education. If a textbook publisher offered written materials to schools that similarly had the potential to cause harm to students, and the authors of the book were aware of these problems, they would also have a moral obligation to revise the book before publication. The responsibility to ensure that suitable materials are used in classes would be shared by the teachers, their schools or the relevant accrediting body. As part of their duties to ensure that students have safe environments in which to learn, educators remain the ultimate gatekeepers to protect students from harm.

While producers of educational materials and educators have a similar responsibility in both print-based and online environments, it is nevertheless true that the nature of online environments such as virtual schools can make it harder for teachers to exercise their responsibility effectively. Technologies can be introduced before their effects are fully understood, and teachers, who could once decide on the merit of competing pedagogies in conventional classrooms may be challenged by unfamiliar materials and practices. It is clear that specialised training must be offered to teachers if they are to use online environments effectively (Scheuermann, 2002; Erlbaum, McIntyre & Smith, 2002). Nevertheless, this training may not be readily available. This in turn suggests that comparatively more of the responsibility should be accepted by IT producers.

Fortunately, there has been some increased recognition that IT developers have social obligations. Tim Berners-Lee, a pioneer of the world wide web, has argued that ‘people in the Web development community had to be morally and ethically aware of what they were doing’ (Berners-Lee & Fischetti, 1999, p. 94). Similar views are reflected in the Association for Computing (ACM) Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. These include the following:

When designing or supplementing systems, computing professionals must

attempt to ensure that the product of their efforts will be used in

socially responsible ways, will meet social needs, and will avoid

harmful effects to health and welfare (ACM, 2002).

In Britain and Australia, the code of conduct for IT professionals instructs members of their respective groups to have regard for public health, safety and environment. (British Computer Society, 2002; Association for Computing Machinery, 2002). In Canada, members are reminded that ‘society has the right to demand that practitioners in this field act in a manner which recognises their responsibilities toward society’ (Canadian Information Processing Society, 2002), while in Hong Kong members are asked to ‘contribute to society and human well-being and avoid harm to others’ (Hong Kong Computer Society, 2002).

However, the existence of ethical codes in a number of countries does not guarantee ethical behaviour. Ethical codes are likely to be most appropriate for those behaviours that can be easily identified, or in contexts where consequences are clearly apparent. Examples of unethical behaviour such as dishonesty, plagiarism and misrepresentation are more easily identified than cultural insensitivity or the promotion of unwelcome community attitudes. In education, problems in software for primary schools can include the misrepresentation of minority groups or gender bias. If software is sold overseas there may be accusations of cultural imperialism, and computer applications promoted by IT companies can potentially make a negative contribution to students’ socialisation.

The concept of good or harm caused by the use of IT can be better understood through a perspective that examines the effects of human actions. One such theory, utilitarianism, is described in an essay which John Stuart Mill (1969) originally wrote in the 1830s. Mill explained his belief that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they produce the reverse of happiness’ (p. 210).

It is consistent with Mill’s perspective that those who produce or implement IT can be seen as committing a morally reprehensible act if the net result is unhappiness. It will, of course be difficult to obtain consensus on whether a given product or process contributes to happiness or unhappiness. Equally, apportioning responsibility will also be a challenge. However, it is legitimate to ask software producers, for example, to share the responsibility for what they do, rather than passing on their concerns to the user.

Responsibility is increased if an employee knows (or reasonably ought to know) that some harm will result from the use of a product or procedure. An individual in the IT industry may not, personally, initiate any harmful action, but can be held morally accountable for not preventing the harm caused by others. If, for example, an employee believes that the company’s software will not promote learning in the educational context it is designed for, there is a contingent responsibility to inform others of that belief.

The key concept to be considered is that of knowledge of potential harm. Knowledge of a hazard has been a key concept of notions of responsibility since antiquity. Hammurabi’s Laws also refer to it:

If a man’s ox is a known gorer, and the authorities of his city

quarter notify him that it is a known gorer, but he does not blunt

its horns or control his ox, and that ox gores to death a member of

the awilu [free]class, he (the owner) shall give 30 shekels of

silver (Roth, 1995, p. 128).

In the IT industry, it would in most cases be unreasonable to blame employees for not warning of potential harmful effects from a computer application, if they had no knowledge of the problems. There is, however, an important qualification, in that employees are still responsible for things that they reasonably ought to know. Where thorough testing is not carried out before the release of software, any resulting problems can involve both accusations of negligence and moral failure. When software companies release a product for the educational market, there is a contingent responsibility to ensure that it has been adequately tested with students and that the intended benefits can be achieved.

However, an argument that is sometimes heard from the IT industry is that problems or bugs in computer programs are inevitable. As software increases in complexity, there is the possibility, as Littlewood and Strigini (1992) suggest, that design faults will persist and emerge in the final product. The problem, as Corbato (1991) sees it, is that computer programs occur by evolution, with early assumptions being forgotten as new features are added to systems. Nissenbaum (1997) refers to the related problem of ‘many hands’, in which accountability is obscured by the involvement of a number of people in a computer-related process. Negative consequences may result when it is not clear who is responsible for identifying errors. Nevertheless, complexity is not an excuse for the avoidance of responsibility. Davison (2000) gives the example of a domestic appliance such as a television set, and argues that users have the right to expect that it will operate safely. Similarly, although it may initially appear that there will inevitably be some problems in the software used in educational contexts, the nature of programming and design should not be seen as an excuse to reduce tedious checking.

The question of complexity in those IT products used in education is also associated with notions of individual responsibility. Ideas of authorship were challenged in the twentieth century when the evolution of film and multimedia affected the attribution of responsibility to a single person. If, for example, a television show is thought to encourage antisocial behaviour, there could well be an argument about whether the producer, director, actors or others were responsible. If an IT product were to be used in education, there would be a similar concern.

However, it can be argued that responsibility cannot be as easily established when there is not a clear link between cause and effect. While the notion of causation has troubled philosophers for hundreds of years, what seems apparent in everyday life is that it is reasonable to argue for causation when there are observable phenomena based on physical laws. Hence, if a mechanic has failed to tighten the wheel nuts on a car, a customer could point out that the wheel might come off and an accident would result.

Causation is more difficult to identify in applications of IT that do not involve such observable events. If software were designed, for example, to turn on a light, it would usually be relatively straightforward to determine whether it had worked or not. However, the use of software in school education would be quite different outside clinical situations, because it usually takes place in contexts where there are uncontrolled variables. If a student was involved in a virtual school and had formed the view that one racial group was superior to another, it would be inappropriate to blame the teaching methods or the web sites involved without a thorough examination of all of the factors. Even if there were links to web sites containing racist material, a range of factors could explain the student’s views, including interaction with other people, learner characteristics, exposure to other media, and the home environment.

The attribution of responsibility becomes more problematic when cultural differences are considered. A graphic of a woman in a bikini or an advertisement on a web site for alcohol might be quite acceptable for one group, but be seen as immoral or harmful by another. It would initially seem unreasonable to ask employees to make complex judgments that might be better left to skilled psychologists, sociologists and educators.

Nevertheless, the argument that specialists are needed before decisions can be made is not convincing when commonsense indicates likely human behaviour. Such an approach can be used by IT companies to avoid accepting responsibility for their products, by arguing that the required experts are too expensive, or are more appropriate for the user. Aldous Huxley (1957) exposed this argument as early as 1927:

The most important part of man [sic] can be studied without a

special technique, and described in the language of common speech.

In order to be able to say something significant … one does not

need to have had a special training (1957, p. viii).

A corporation may decide not to remedy known faults in software or the organisation of a virtual school because to do so may reduce profits. This is not a problem that has arisen recently or is confined to the IT industry. Long before modern computers were developed, Watt (1929) argued for the application of moral principles to economic activities, and Mumford (1934) explained the ways in which capitalism had used machines to increase private profit rather than further social welfare. If the primary duty of executives is to maximise stockholder profits, spending money on social obligations such as ensuring that software works for the intended audience may be counterproductive.

The Friedmanite view is that the responsibility of the corporate executive is to ‘make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom’ (Friedman, 2001, p. 51). Such views may illustrate prevailing notions of responsibility. Mitchell (2001) argues that a culture of corporate irresponsibility exists in the United States, where ‘moral behaviour is contingent upon its financial rationality’ (p. 69). This problem is compounded because the Internet and other elements of electronic media contribute to a globalised world of osmotic geographic boundaries and interactive markets. Ethical systems and business practices are linked to the same technologies that are increasingly being adopted by educational systems.

Student responsibility in online environments

The question of students’ responsibility in online environments should also be considered in addition to stakeholders, including the IT industry, teachers, and parents. One viewpoint is that students have a central role in deciding whether online schooling is appropriate for them, and how it might operate, because they are the ones for whom it is designed. However, although students can make a valuable contribution to questions such as the difficulty level of tasks and the advantages of available learning modes, they may not yet have the maturity to accept the responsibility for their own education. Proportionately more weight can be attributed to students’ views as they become mature and are able to work independently. Some data are available from virtual schools to suggest students’ views, including letters of support from high school students (Florida High School Evaluation, 2002). However, an interesting trend in virtual schooling is that ‘a growing number are offering middle and elementary school courses’ (Clark, 2001, p. 24). This observation is important because virtual school students in earlier years would have been less likely to be able to take responsibility for learning choices without help from parents and others.

Parental responsibility and online schools

Students involved in the pre-compulsory education sector must still have decisions made on their behalf by teachers, parents or others, even when many of the day-to-day decisions about their learning must be theirs. For parents, a rough line can be drawn between the responsibility for providing the instruction (which comes principally from the online school) and their role in supporting their child. Clearly, it will be necessary for parents to offer encouragement to ensure that the required tasks are completed. Del Litke’s (1998) study of students aged eleven to fourteen in a virtual school found that problems included missed deadlines and work that was not completed. A particular concern was that teachers delegated their authority to parents, and parents passed responsibility for the schoolwork onto the students. The assumption that parents will be able to supervise their children effectively or that students are mature enough to work independently without adult supervision may not be justified.

Globalisation, responsibility and future growth of virtual schools

Globalisation facilitates far more than the use of IT for communication between people around the world. In the ways that the dominant messages shape the perceptions and value systems of those who use it, there is a resonance with McLuhan’s earlier ideas about the ways that extensions of communications systems affect the patterns of human fives. McLuhan (1989) observed that there was an ‘obsessional concern of Western man with ‘content’ and the correlative indifference to hidden environmental or side effects’ (p. 93).

With a phenomenon such as virtual schools, there is a tendency to concentrate on questions such as the content provided, student access, levels of satisfaction and costs. What is less obvious is that the adoption of virtual schooling brings into question accepted ways of looking at responsibility in school education. When students are separated in time and place from their teacher, and a mediating technology replaces face-to-face interaction, there are profound changes to our understanding of education. These changes include the ways in which responsibility operates in a virtual school environment, and the question of how this responsibility might best be shared by all concerned.


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Glenn Russell

Monash University

Dr Glenn Russell lectures in information and communications technology in education in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, Wellington Rd, Clayton Victoria 3800. Email:

Table 1 Distance Education Modes and Phases

Distance education mode phase

Print 1

Broadcast 2

Online 3

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