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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Benefits of Distance Learning

By Christopher Reddy — May 20, 2012 6 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Christopher Reddy, an outstanding teacher in the Averill Park Central School District in Averill Park, NY.

As educators, we see the current financial issues facing schools not only as an obstacle for ourselves, but more so as a potential hurdle for our students to overcome. Is teaching 30 students more difficult than teaching 20? Yes, absolutely. However, is learning in a classroom with 30 students more difficult than learning in a classroom with 20? Infinitely so. We find ourselves asking “What electives and extracurricular activities are my students going to be offered? Will project based and cooperative learning be effective with increased class sizes and fewer resources? How will my students fare in suboptimal learning situations?” Innately, we are concerned for our students.

Educators are creative and innovative solutions are absolutely necessary when trying to “do more with less”. Recently, a creative approach has been implemented to maintain upper level science electives in several capital district schools surrounding Albany, N.Y. To keep student numbers in classes down, cooperative and project based learning opportunities up, and students engaged in relevant learning, students have been taught an elective genetics course through Distance Learning (DL) via Interactive Television (ITV). BIOL 105 is a laboratory based college credit bearing course taught from Averill Park High School to Maple Hill High School. Distance learning through interactive technologies may be defined as students learning at a remote site where they are physically separated from their primary instructor but interact with them in real time through video conferencing technology.

Teaching using interactive technologies is not new; the current form of DL through ITV was established in the early 1980s as a way to offer students in rural schools a variety of course selections. In 30 years, the goal of DL through ITV has not changed: provide students with opportunities they otherwise would not have; transport information, not people. With the current financial situation facing schools, DL through ITV is being used to alleviate a collection of issues caused by financial strain with great success. DL through ITV is allowing involved schools to offer upper level electives, keep class sizes minimal, and promote students to be proactive about their own learning through the extensive use of project based and cooperative learning.

1)DL through ITV offers unique electives that students would otherwise not have the opportunity to take due to financial issues that force course consolidation. Electives provide students with an opportunity to continue their education in a content area that interests them. Whether the student is completing an art sequence and creating a portfolio or working through upper level science electives to get a jump start on pre-med content, electives keep students in the classroom learning. With course consolidation facing many districts, electives are dwindling.

DL through ITV allows districts to work together to provide a variety electives. For example, Averill Park High School, in conjunction with other area schools, is the remote or host site for: BIOL 105(genetics/biotechnology), Chinese, Japanese 1, Japanese 2, Terrorism, Macroeconomics, Nanotechnology*, and Astrobiology*. Without DL through ITV and speaking in reference to my host students at Averill Park High School, the only classes they would be offered are BIOL 105 and Japanese.

Using DL through ITV, we are able to increase the number of electives available to our students. With a teacher specialized and interested in teaching specific content at one school, DL through ITV carries that instructor’s enthusiasm and expertise to students at surrounding schools. The involved districts seems to embody the classic “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” paradigm.
*Proposed classes for 2012/2013 school year

2)DL through ITV enables small class sections. A major sticking point and controversial topic for many district budget debates is class size. In general, as a district feels the stress caused by financial issues, class sizes increase. As mentioned earlier, a student will immediately experience the negative aspects that surround learning in a classroom with 29 other students. A DL instructor may still teach 24 students. However their students are divided; some distance learning sections may have 24 students divided among three schools with each school having 8 students in their classroom. Others have two sections of 12.

Regardless, DL through ITV necessitates small subdivisions of students. DL or not, 8-12 students per classroom is an optimal number for efficient cooperative and project based learning. Whether I’m observing my 12 host students at Averill Park High School or 11 remote students at Maple Hill High School, each site is a pleasure to observe while the students help, manage, and teach each other. I attribute these qualities to the small size encouraged by DL through ITV learning.

3)DL through ITV teaches important cooperative problem solving skills and encourages students to be proactive in their own learning. As alluded to earlier, DL through ITV necessitates several small sections of students. Small groups of students encourage cooperative learning. When implemented correctly, cooperative learning is a powerful method of teaching and has social, cognitive, and academic benefits. For older students, cooperative learning teaches important interpersonal skills necessary to be successful.

“Soft skills” are often stressed as an imperative quality for potential employees. Whether discussing host students or remote students, they are all “in the same boat”. All of them are participating in a novel, challenging, unique way of learning science. This thread provides common ground that fosters important cooperative learning relationships. Distance learning by nature creates issues for the students to overcome. To overcome these issues, the instructor needs to trust their students and embrace the benefits of autonomous learning. Completing the work, when they want to, how they want to, and with whom they want to is the autonomous learning that forces a student to be proactive in their own education.

To be an effective program, DL through ITV cannot be a mandated method of teaching. We need to consider DL through ITV an alternative when there are no other options and traditional education is not logistically feasible. We cannot use DL through ITV to “combine school districts” and cut teachers. Administrators, teachers, students, and parents alike will all agree that a teacher who is physically present in the room is ideal.

An ambiguous discussion comparing the benefits of a traditional classroom to distance education is unnecessary. However, when all other possible avenues and options are exhausted (as we see them becoming) DL through ITV seems to be a viable option to provide relevant education to students in this time of instability.

Many of you will say, “Wait!!!! You can’t teach a hands on laboratory based, college level genetics course through a T.V.!!!!” (did I mention we target middle level 70-80 GPA learners). I acknowledge there are obvious drawbacks and issues; this mode of implementation is constantly evolving, self and program assessment throughout is paramount. However, in the end, I think that every educator would agree and favor a program that keeps class sizes at a minimum, encourages cooperative and project based learning, and encourages students to become more proactive in their education over nothing at all.

Personally, I am able to look myself in the mirror and say, “though public education is facing incredibly difficult obstacles, I did everything in my power today to provide my students with a relevant science education.”

If interested in learning more about using interactive technologies to connect schools and help students, please feel free to contact me ( reddyc@averillpark.k12.ny.us). I truly believe this technology has the power to provide an effective education and I am willing to do whatever I can to help anyone that asks.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.