Special Report

E-Learning Goes to School

By Andrew Trotter — September 12, 2017 14 min read
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The local nature of high school, American-style, is underscored as teenagers flow through the 33-year-old passages here to the next class, jostling companions and belongings, chattering about college-acceptance letters and plans for a spring-break beach trip.

Just off the main hall, though, in a little room marked “VHS Lab,” Hudson High School doesn’t seem so local anymore.

Beneath a wall clock that is about four hours off, 10 students peer at their computer monitors. Each is involved—judging from the textbooks balanced on their keyboards—in a different subject: fractals, genetics, music appreciation, comparative philosophy, and so on.

Yet this is not study hall, or even independent study. Each student is, essentially, attending a different online class, responding to a teacher and classmates located, well, just about anywhere.

One student, for example, is taking a media studies course online from a teacher in Malaysia. Another is studying technology and multimedia from a teacher in Georgia. A third is taking honors American studies from a teacher in Clinton, Mass. Classmates enroll from throughout the nation, and some from as far away as Asia, Europe, and South America.

Hudson is part of a growing wave of high schools that are using e-learning—as online education is often called—to poke holes in traditional classroom and curriculum boxes and let new information, perspectives, and options pour in.

“It broadens the curriculum way beyond what we’d normally be able to offer,” says John Stapelfeld, Hudson’s principal. Few of the 128 courses the school has access to online would find their way into the curriculum otherwise, he says.

Forty Hudson students, nearly all of them 11th and12th graders, take online courses each semester. They report to a converted storage room daily for a regular 90-minute block, sandwiched between their regular classes. The number will rise to 60 students in the fall, though administrators at the 880-student school, which serves grades 8-12, are worried about finding enough space and up-to-date computers.

Sixty students may not seem like many. But school officials say they are slowly pursuing the goal of having every student take at least one online course before receiving a Hudson diploma.

States Are Key Players

Hudson High receives its online courses through the Virtual High School, a collaborative of high schools that is run by the VHS Inc., a nonprofit foundation based in Maynard, Mass. The 2,752-student Hudson school district co-founded the program in 1995, along with the Concord, Mass.-based Concord Consortium, a nonprofit R&D organization, under a five-year grant from the federal government.

The VHS has 200 member schools in 28 states and eight countries. Members must contribute a teacher to lead at least one online class of 20 students. For each course provided, the school receives 20 places for its students in online courses. Hudson has contributed the services of two teachers, for astronomy and Advanced Placement statistics; and a music teacher is going through the Virtual High’s online training program this year.

Though the VHS is one of the nation’s first two online programs for high schools—the other is the E-School run by the Hawaii Department of Education—other providers of online courses have swarmed onto the scene since 1995. They include Bellevue, Wash.-based Apex Learning, the Florida Virtual School, and colleges and universities that have opened some of their online courses to high school students. And according to Education Week’s 2002 survey of state technology coordinators,12 states have established their own virtual schools and five others are piloting cyber schools.

Experts say the demand for K-12 online courses continues to grow.

For instance, the American Federation of Teachers found in a survey of its local affiliates this year that high school students in 23 states are taking online courses in public schools, according to Jamie Horowitz, a spokesman for the union.

Right now, it is the involvement of state governments that is emerging as a pivotal factor supporting the trend. States have latched onto online schooling as an affordable way to bolster their efforts to raise academic performance.

The Education Week survey found that 32 states are sponsoring e-learning initiatives, including online testing programs, virtual schools, and Internet-based professional development.

Typically, states sign up vendors, such as Apex Learning or Lincoln, Neb.-based class.com, to put together a cafeteria-style offering of online courses. For states, that approach is cheaper and more flexible than creating online courses themselves.

Florida, on the other hand, has developed its own courses for its online school. The Florida Virtual School was formed in 1997 from a pilot project run by Orange and Alachua counties. The program enrolls more than5,000 students in 65 counties, almost double the 2,600students the school reported serving in 2001. Free to the state’s public schools and home schoolers, it receives $6million annually in state money. The school also generates revenue by selling its courses to schools in a few other states.

As it is, 25 states have laws that allow online charter schools to be established, according to the Education Week survey. And about 30 online charter schools have cropped up in a dozen of those states, according to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group and information clearinghouse for school choice.

But cyber charters have also attracted controversy. The Ohio Federation of Teachers, which is suing to overturn its state’s charter school law, has claimed that online charters there are nonprofit storefronts for profit-seeking management companies. And the Pennsylvania School Boards Association is challenging the legality of that state’s support for online charter schools.

‘Set Free’

As an average-size school serving a town with blue-collar roots but an increasingly high-tech workforce, Hudson High, located about 25 miles west of Boston, must balance its limited resources with the community’s increasing expectations for students.

The online courses add to the handful of honors and AP courses at the school. But school officials say the cyber classes also let students pursue narrower topics, such as the Vietnam War. “In regular U.S. history, you probably spend a week on the Vietnam conflict,” says David Champigny, a school guidance counselor. The Virtual High School, in contrast, has a full-semester course on the war.

And some online courses cover subjects that students say are more practical than what the regular curriculum offers, says Janet Sampson, Hudson’s school-to-career and instructional-technology specialist. The engineering track, for example, includes the school’s regular math and science courses, plus a VHS course on bridge architecture, which requires that students build a model bridge.

“If kids are interested in a certain career, they can explore it [through an online course], solidify their interest, or realize it isn’t what they thought it was,” Sampson says.

Students see other benefits, too.

Kimberly David, 16, a junior who describes herself as shy, says she earns better marks for class participation grades in her online music-appreciation and -composition course “because you can post questions rather than embarrass yourself.”

Mark Exarhopoulos, 18—a senior who plays on the school’s football, hockey, and baseball teams—says the online courses he has taken have helped him do a better job juggling classes and team practices. And only a few students he knows have taken online courses because they thought they would be easier than traditional classes. “It’s not a walkthrough,” Exarhopoulos says of the online approach.

Kathy Somerville, the Hudson High librarian, often helps students do research for their online class projects. “Some students sign up [for the virtual classes] and they think it’s going to be easy, and they fail miserably,” she says. But “other students just love it—it feels like they’ve been set free.”

One real benefit, students and teachers here say, is the chance to study with students who live far from Massachusetts—or even the United States.

Holly Hester, an 18-year-old senior, says her course in Eastern and Western thought benefits from having several Buddhist students who live in Venezuela. “We can ask them direct questions” about Buddhism, she says.

Peggy Collins, a Hudson High physics teacher who teaches an online course in astronomy, says her class has students from Brazil and at least seven U.S. states; some students are Afghans who recently emigrated to California, and two students are from a school for the deaf near Washington.

To prepare to teach the class, the physics teacher had to consult an expert in the learning styles of deaf children. And for the Brazilian students, she had to research constellations of the Southern Hemisphere before instructing them to go outside to make observations of the night sky.

Beyond that additional preparation, online teachers—aware that most of the youngsters in their classes will never meet each other face to face—devote extra time and effort to building a community of learners. In fact, community building is a prime topic in the 14-week online training course the VHS teachers are required to take.

Among the ways online teachers nurture a sense of community in their classes is by having “open thread” discussions, basically e-mail chats that feature just about any topic. For example, Hudson’s Karen Deaver, who teaches an AP statistics course online, assigns her cyber students a weekly magazine article—not necessarily on math—to read and discuss.

Some Are Skeptical

But the rush to offer online courses troubles some educators, even those who are comfortable using technology. They say the academic value of online courses is unproven, the quality is uneven, and the motives of some proponents are suspect.

Alan Warhaftig, a Los Angeles high school English teacher who sports a credential from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, suggests schools are relying too much on technology to improve learning.

Warhaftig scoffs at the e-mail chats and other “community building” exercises many online teachers use. “If you spend all this time … creating a simulacrum of community, that’s taking away from instructional time,” he says. “For me, everything is about instructional time.”

Indeed, he says it’s just such exercises that underscore what he calls “the overall weakness to that notion that online schools can replace the school environment.”

From a teacher’s perspective, Warhaftig doubts that online classrooms can match the “looking in the eyes” factor that teachers rely on so much to determine if their students understand a lesson—or even if they’re having a bad day.

Some Hudson students echo those concerns.

Erik Reed, 17, a senior taking an online music course, says of his classmates from Massachusetts, Arkansas, and California: “You’re not really bonding with these people. You’ll never see them again when the course is over.”

The problem is one that some education researchers are investigating.

Andrew Zucker, a Washington-based researcher at SRI International, a nonprofit research and technology-development organization, has studied the Virtual High School since 1996. As part of his research, he has conducted surveys of participants in similar online and face-to-face classes. One of his primary findings: There is less interaction between students and teachers in online courses.

But while he says that is a weakness, he does not believe it is a fatal flaw.

Hudson High students are similarly divided on the issue, with several saying they think more carefully about the e-mails they write for online class discussions than they do when they simply raise their hands to speak in regular classes.

Yet it seems telling that Hudson officials rarely allow students to take the VHS courses in core subjects, although the officials say that stance has nothing to do with doubts about the courses’ effectiveness.

“We want them to take their core required subjects here—our classrooms with our teachers and our curriculum,” says guidance counselor Champigny. He notes that students have a lot at risk when they face the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the state’s high-stakes tests.

Besides, Champigny says, the VHS is best used to provide what the school doesn’t offer.

When pressed, though, the guidance counselor, a former English teacher, says: “In my personal opinion, I don’t think [an online course] can take the place of the classroom experience. But it is a beautiful add-on.”

One longtime math teacher at Hudson High, J. Bryan Sullivan, who is now retired but who coaches the school’s math teams, says he’s skeptical of the effectiveness of online courses in providing instruction in his subject. “Few students will dig out the mathematics” in an online course, says Sullivan, because learning online can get “lonely and boring.”

‘Real’ Courses

At the moment, teachers’ unions, state boards of education, and local policymakers are scrambling to get a handle on the growth in e-learning and what it means for them.

The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are surveying their members about what they think of online schools, and are developing policies and reports on the subject.

Students and educators, in fact, still are often perplexed about e-learning.

To counter the confusion among students applying for Hawaii’s E-School, for instance, the application requires them to attest to the following: “I realize that this E-School course I am signing up for is a real course and this grade will appear on my transcript. …”

Vicki Kajioka, the director of the online school, based in Honolulu, says: “Lots of times, with young people, they don’t realize that when they’re signing up for something on the Web, it’s a real course and it’s going to appear on their grades. We do a lot of counseling, sending out progress reports, but to some students it doesn’t register.”

Beyond that confusion, both providers and consumers of online courses say a serious problem is the lack of widely recognized standards of quality. In response, some efforts are under way to devise methods of assuring quality.

One is in the area of accreditation. The Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation, or CITA, a group formed by five of the nation’s six private regional accrediting agencies, is working on defining quality, says Randy C. Sinisi, the associate executive director of the organization.

She says CITA, formed originally to bring uniformity to accreditation of overseas schools and television-based distance-learning programs, has had to adopt new methods to evaluate online schools. Beyond examining the materials that complement the online curriculum, the organization conducts telephone and e-mail surveys of students and arranges to conduct observations of students and teachers taking part in online classes.

But Sinisi acknowledges that accreditors are still trying to figure out how to deal with online schools. “We have to change our methods,” she says. “There is no student body there to look at.”

‘The Way It Should Be’

Proponents of online courses say technologies underdevelopment will give online courses richer means of interaction, although the limited bandwidth available to many schools may delay the use of new tools.

Florence McGinn, a high school English teacher from Flemington, N.J., who was a member of a 2000 panel authorized by Congress to investigate the potential of e-learning, argues that more radical steps are needed before schools can enjoy the full benefits of online e-education. “I think there has to be an educational and social reorganization of the classroom,” she says.

McGinn now is the vice president of research at the Global Knowledge Exchange, a company based in Wayne, N.J., that designs and brokers online training programs. She believes a new format could include having students analyze their own learning styles and enter into “learning contracts” with their schools that give them considerable independence, including more opportunities for “virtual” learning experiences.

But for now, schools like Hudson High are taking amore measured approach to online learning.

Hudson educators look forward to the completion of anew school building, now rising amid construction cranes on the school’s old athletic fields and expected to be completed sometime next year. The new building will have a VHS lab that is triple the size of the current one ,with 24 modern computers—up from the current 14.

School officials say the new building will give a shove to Hudson’s creation of a careful hybrid of new and old modes of learning.

What it’s unlikely to do, cautions Somerville, the school librarian, is make everyone an online student.

E-learning, she says, is “not for everyone, but that’s the way it should be.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2003 edition of Education Week


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