A Virtual Self-Directed World

This is part four of a series called “A Journey of Self-Directed Education” written from a student’s perspective. Each post will discuss a different aspect of Self-Directed Education and how it can improve a child’s life. Click here to see the full series!

What does Self-Directed Education look like in a virtual setting? What are the kinds of things students are able to do? Most self-directed schools offer a physical and in-person program for their students. However, at The Open School we not only have a campus in Orange County, CA but a virtual program for students to connect to from all over the world! A virtual environment like this offers the opportunity for kids who do not live in California or near a self-directed school to have the experience of free learning!

At a self-directed school students have the freedom to create their own day-to-day schedule and design the activities that they want to do. You may wonder how this would look in a virtual space. The Open School’s virtual program functions mainly on the online platform called Discord. Discord opens up an entire virtual world for students to connect to other students in many ways. Compared to an in-person school where kids go home at the end of the day, Discord offers students the chance to communicate or hang out 24/7 if that’s what they want. The Open School’s Discord server consists of multiple text channels that were made by the students. Each text channel’s name displays the specific usage of it. The purpose of this was for students to have places to express themselves and to share their projects, interests and passions. One popular text channel is the art channel! Lots of students share their drawings, paintings, music or fashion projects, or the makeup they did on themselves. Another loved text channel is the pets channel. The virtual program has quite the pet community and many of the kids love to share pictures and videos of their cute animals! A recent addition was the movies and TV shows channel. We have lots of kids who are passionate about the film industry and love finding other students with similar taste in entertainment.

On the school’s Discord server, kids can engage via text, voice or video chat room. With cutting-edge technology and the freedom that Self-Directed Education provides, kids have the opportunity to create any activity that they would like to do with other virtual students. Some students enjoy playing video games together, others like baking/cooking, some kids are passionate about painting and drawing, or some would just prefer to work on personal projects while video chatting with their friends. Those are just a few examples of what students can do with their time. Because the foundation of the virtual program is self-directed, each student’s day will look different depending on what kinds of activities and things they want to do with others. 

The “Bring Your Own Recipe” is one of the most popular activities in the virtual program. For this activity, each student chooses their own recipe that they want to bake/cook and all participants hop into a video chat room to hang out and talk while they cook individually. After that activity is finished, the participants share pictures of their creations in the cooking text channel. Another loved activity is “Cat Show and Tell”. The participants of this activity join a video call with their cat to see and spend time with other students’ cats! Students can also choose to do more academic activities, like learning a language or specific subject taught in traditional school. One popular activity we have is “Math For Life”. This is where we have one of our staff members help teach students about important math skills such as budgeting, loans, interest, credit, etc. 

Besides activities, the virtual program offers a handful of committees for students to join. The virtual committees have the job of making important decisions for the program, planning events, resolving student conflict, and maintaining community connection. The main virtual committees are Conflict Resolution, Virtual Community Development, Welcome Committee, Engagement Committee, and the Virtual Hiring Committee. Four out of five of those committees listed I was the chair of during my time as a virtual student. Serving as a member or chair of a committee is a great way to learn responsibility and to be a part of the bigger conversations regarding the school’s expansion. It’s an opportunity for students to learn how to use their voice to share their opinions and ideas about their school. The members of a committee schedule a time of day to meet and hop into a video call to discuss the agenda items of that specific committee. For instance, the Virtual Community Development Committee plans all events that the virtual program hosts. So as we near the end of the year, this committee brainstorms ideas and organizes the end of the year party for the students. A newer addition is the Engagement Committee. This one helps students who are struggling to participate within the program come up with ideas on what would make their experience more exciting and interactive.

The virtual program also has a daily house meeting and weekly school meeting. The daily house meetings have a different group of students each day, as well as a unique theme, activity or discussion topic. House meeting happens every day at 12:30pm Pacific and at the end of the week students can choose which day they would like to attend the following week. Kids have the freedom to choose a different day each week, but most students enjoy having the same group of people to meet up with at the same time. The purpose of house meeting is to maintain community connection in a way that is different from the general student-led activities. Instead of meeting on a voice call in the Discord server, there is another virtual platform The Open School utilizes called gather.town. Gather.town allows all users to have their own customizable character and it offers lots of open space to design and decorate your own virtual rooms. Our school’s gather.town space has a pretty big map filled with an arcade, garden, library and multiple breakout rooms. Students love getting creative on this platform while also engaging in the chosen theme or topic for the day. Some of the theme options are 20 questions, mad libs, show & tell, moral dilemmas, philosophy discussions, design your dream home, explore gather.town games and a lot more!

The virtual school meeting is where the democratic aspect of the program is seen in action! All members of the virtual program meet on Zoom every Wednesday at 1pm Pacific. We have a school meeting chair that runs the virtual meeting and a clerk/notetaker who writes down all important things that were discussed during the meeting. Each week we have an agenda to go over that is filled with announcements, motions, and discussions that come from multiple people. The point of school meeting is to involve the students in something besides activities. This is where they can also voice their opinions on matters that are important to them. If students feel strongly about changing or adding something to the virtual program, they can bring it to school meeting for everyone to have the chance to discuss and vote on it. Changes can be made to the law book, with a motion to add, get rid of or adjust a rule. Changes can be made to the Discord server, with motions to add or get rid of text/voice channels. The virtual program has certain attendance requirements for students, and if kids disagree with them or want to update them they have complete freedom to discuss it with the community at school meeting.

So as you can see there is quite a lot for students to do in a self-directed virtual environment. I have been a virtual student for the majority of my time here, and I have made so many friends and have had the best time participating in activities and committees! For a while, I was a hybrid student and would go onto The Open School’s campus two days a week. I enjoyed that a lot, but I felt that my personal educational needs were met more in the virtual program and that I belonged in that community more. I love everyone in the in-person program, but it was my own self-directed decision to go back to being fully virtual. That is the beauty of having the option of two programs! If you are lucky enough to live near the campus you can experiment with being in-person and virtual to see what works best for you! You can learn and experience just as much being a virtual student than an in-person student, and everyone’s needs and desires are different when it comes to what kind of environment they want to be in. That’s the point of this form of education is having the freedom to choose how and where you want to learn!

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