BOCHUM — Katja stares into her laptop camera and bites her lower lip. “Hmm, yes...” She confirms that she understands how chromosome divisions work.
In front of another laptop, her teacher Julia Wirth holds up a piece of paper with circles and Xs drawn in green and red pen. Meiosis and mitosis. Katja nods from Wirth’s screen. The 16-year-old sits in a farmhouse some 40 kilometers from her teacher. But that doesn’t matter, she could just as well be in China — or in Hungary, like some of her classmates. It’s 8:15 a.m. on Monday, and Germany’s only Internet school has just started its day.
The school has 62 students working toward their high school diplomas. Most of them have never seen this building near the train station in Bochum, a mid-sized city in northwest Germany. Teachers give classes in this individualized web school mostly through Skype video chat, but also by text message and Facebook. School materials are either emailed or sent by traditional post. The class schedule is established individually for each student. Some students study four hours a day, some one hour a day, and others vary their study time. No doubt, this is an unusual school for kids in unusual situations.
There are four different schedules under the transparent desk cover in Wirth’s office. Katha is online every day from 8:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. The teacher leafs through the biology book and looks back at the camera. “So, you can do exercises 1 and 2 on this page — and 3, if you feel like it.” Katja nods. “And let me know if you have questions, OK?” The girl with the long blond hair looks ambitious and eager to learn.
Only six months earlier Katja went to a regular high school, but she was viciously bullied to the point that she had to stop going to classes. The experience with bullying is something Katja shares with many of her classmates. A few were traumatized by shootings in their schools, and others are youth offenders that no school will accept. There are also children who have mental or physical illnesses that don’t allow them to sit in school all day, and the Internet school allows them to log in with the laptop from their hospital beds.
Nearly 99% of all German schools have computers, but in secondary schools only about three-quarters of them are online, while in primary schools only half are connected to the Internet. But for this school, Internet and technology are not extras — they are the foundation of the school itself.
“Technology is an absolute incentive for our students,” says Sarah Lichtenberger, the school’s director. “They find it cool that they can learn with the computer. Only later do they realize that it’s really just school coming out of the computer.” Lichtenberger laughs. It seems like there is a lot of laughter in this school.
Linus would not understand the director’s last sentence. The 8-year-old is wearing a sweatshirt that looks like a page from a funny children’s book, and he’s sitting in front of his computer in another city. He is autistic, and understands neither irony nor certain basic social customs. At school, he would start screaming whenever he didn’t feel like he was understood, causing substantial disruption in his traditional classroom. He’s been participating in the web school for several months, and he’s always sitting at his computer 15 minutes before the lesson begins.
Video chats and emoticons
Geometry is on the schedule this Monday. Linus holds up to the camera his copy of a technical drawing of a car. “Great job,” says his teacher, Christian Wiensgol, who pulls a file into the chat window. A couple of seconds later, you can hear the sound of a printer coming from Linus’s room. The video shows Linus concentrating on copying the new worksheet.
“In video chats, you see each other but don’t look directly in each others’ eyes. That helps kids with Asperger syndrome, for whom eye contact is often quite difficult,” Wiensgot explains.
At the end of the lesson, he sends Linus an animated smiley emoticon. “Linus thinks it’s cool to communicate with smiley faces,” Weinsgot says. The digital emotions are easier for him to understand than their analog equivalents.
Sarah Lichtenberger, the principal, rips open a package that came by post. Inside are T-shirts for the students who are about to take the end-of-school test. The web school is a private school, and as such is not allowed to administer the official, nationwide exam, which means the students take the tests at partner schools. So far, 157 students have graduated from the web school — some are working, some are continuing their studies. No one has dropped out.
Email first, then Skype
In the beginning, almost everything here was done by email, but that has changed enormously since Lichtenberger took over the school in 2004. “We didn't have Skype eight years ago. And the technical knowledge of our students has increased enormously. We don’t have to explain how to turn the computer on to anyone anymore,” she says.
According to a recent study, 93% of 6-to-13-year-olds in Germany use the Internet, and nearly a third of them do so on a daily basis.
When the school opened, there were only eight students. “Then I made the hardest cold call of my life,” Lichtenberger says. She found the address for the mother of Bill and Tom Kaulitz, a teenage pop duo, and wrote to her about the school. After they signed on, the school became famous, and has had other young actors and professional athletes as students. Still, that is not its primary clientele or purpose.
One last chance
For most school children who have to be excused from the regular school system, the child welfare office pays the web school’s 787 euro monthly fee. “When someone comes to us, it’s because the school system has failed,” Lichtenberger says. “When the social system in school is making kids sick, we offer an alternative.”
With five boys, one girl and five foster children, Katja’s Brady Bunch family seems to be a picture-perfect example of a good social support system. Peacocks roam through the garden with the enormous trampoline and ponies, cows and donkeys graze in a field further away. In the kitchen, Katja explains how she went from having many friends to being bullied by her entire class after a mundane fight with her best friend, until she couldn’t take it anymore. Through the web school, she quickly made connections with other students who also suffered at the hands of bullies.
“We try to build their self-esteem, to help them believe that they don’t have to be victims,” Licthenberger says. “It helps a lot that they no longer have the pressure from their classmates.”