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November 05, 1995|CATHERINE SAILLANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert, 15, turns on his computer at 9 a.m. and works until 4 p.m., taking one hour off for lunch, his father said. He concentrates on one subject each day--chemistry, for instance--instead of switching topics every hour or so, Robert said.

Although he spends roughly the same time he would at a public school, Robert said he prefers learning at home.

"I learn a lot more because I get to stick on one subject instead of flip-flopping back and forth," he said.

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After school, he goes roller-blading with friends or heads out to the local hockey rink, Robert said.

But Learn OnLine has been a much more isolating experience for James Gavlik. The 13-year-old son of the program's creator has been educating himself out of the family's Mandalay Bay home for two years.

On a recent day, for instance, he plugged in a CD-ROM called "Learn to Speak Spanish." By clicking his way through various screens, James arrived at a chapter that included 100 new Spanish words to learn.

A voice on the disk asked James to repeat the proper pronunciation of a word. James learns instantly whether he has said the word correctly or used it properly in a sentence.

That immediate feedback means that final exams, or any exams at all, are not necessary, his father, John Gavlik said.

"What we're really after is does the student understand the material they are learning, and not did they finish all the exercises on time," the older Gavlik said.

When he is not working on his computer, James said, he is watching television in the family home. He does not go outside to play with other children after school or on weekends, James said.

"Sometimes I play with our two cats," he said.

Besides cruising the Internet and designing his own Web page, James has started two businesses with the help of his computer.

In one enterprise, he sold baseball cards on the Internet; currently, he is creating and selling student identification cards for Laurel Springs students.

Although online instruction so far has been used mostly by home-schoolers, the potential for expansion into public schools is enormous, public school teachers, administrators and university academicians say.

In rural areas, for instance, home education via computer may prove more practical and cheaper than busing a few students who live miles apart to a centralized classroom, said Richard Simpson, assistant superintendent of instructional services for the Conejo Valley Unified School District.

Children who are already homebound because of physical or medical problems could be better served too, Simpson said. Right now, for example, a district teacher must drive daily to the home of a youngster recovering from back surgery, he said.

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"Clearly, it would be great if a student could be online instead of having a home teacher go out once a day."

Richard Clark, a USC professor of education psychology, said online education might be appropriate for elementary-age boys who suffer from attention deficit disorder. He said the disorder is seen most often in boys.

Those boys, about 5% to 7% of the youth population, tend to have difficulty concentrating in the classroom and are often disruptive, he said. They also tend to exhibit obsessional behavior, Clark said.

"Many are obsessed with computer games and they can transfer some of that attention to computer instruction," he said. "There is evidence to show that those who cannot control their behavior in a class can manage it in front of a computer."

Online education might also be appropriate for a select few students who are advanced far beyond their peers and require more challenge, said Terence R. Cannings, professor of education at Pepperdine University.

"Some kids are already forming their own virtual classrooms by connecting with other students in their bedrooms," said Cannings, who has written textbooks on education technology and presented papers at international conferences.

"Education needs to understand that is already happening and use this tool, the Internet, to broaden the scope of learning for all children."

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In Ventura County, virtual classrooms are being considered for Gateway Community School in Camarillo, said Charles Weis, county superintendent of schools.

Gateway, an independent study program with about 450 students, serves mainly teen-age mothers, former dropouts and students who have been expelled from other public schools.

Most already study at home, Weis said. So administrators have been talking about making laptop computers available for checkout that could be connected to the school's mainframe computer, he said.

"We could send more work and give students more feedback on it than they get with the weekly meetings with a teacher," Weis said.

The microchip may also provide a solution to classroom overcrowding, a problem that California schools have long faced, he said.

If taxpayers don't want to pass bonds to pay for school construction, educators can perhaps set up centralized storefronts where banks of computers are available to neighborhood students.

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