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Classroom Technology

Schools Factor E-Courses Into the Daily Learning Mix

By Michelle R. Davis — April 23, 2010 6 min read
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It isn’t a stretch to say that the 200 students at Notus Jr. Sr. High School live far away from the kinds of services many people take for granted. But even in their rural Idaho school, students’ choices of classes include French and Spanish, college-level study, digital photography, and criminal justice.

That’s because Principal Benjamin M. Merrill has created “Pirate Academy,” a roster of online courses that students can take as part of their regular school day.

“My kids are so limited in terms of where they live, I thought it was unfair that their courses should be limited,” said Mr. Merrill, who was also recently named the superintendent of the 330-student Notus School District #135 and serves as the high school football coach. “Now they get to have the same quality of education because of online learning.”

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Schools Factoring E-Courses Into the Daily Learning Mix
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Rural districts, urban districts, and those in between are starting to embrace online classes—and not just as curricular supplements, electives, and advanced courses. School officials are now viewing such classes as an integral part of their offerings, to be factored into daily schedules as much as traditional face-to-face classes.

This blended or hybrid approach is a tactic that experts say is one of the fastest-growing areas of online coursetaking.

The growth of online coursetaking in places like Notus, Idaho, mirrors the national trend. A 2009 report from the Sloan Consortium, a Newburyport, Mass.-based advocacy group for online education, found that the number of K-12 students using online courses rose to more than a million public school students during the 2007-08 school year. That was a 47 percent increase from 2005-06.

“The whole notion of schools going blended is something that is going to get more national attention,” said Richard E. Ferdig, a research professor at the Research Center for Educational Technology at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. “There are so many technology resources out there, why wouldn’t you want your students to gain access to them?”

Virtual Lessons Learned

Over the past few years, schools and researchers have pinpointed some strategies for successfully incorporating online classes into the regular school day, Mr. Ferdig said.

One critical element is providing an in-school mentor—not necessarily a subject-matter expert—who can walk students through any basic academic or technical problems with an online course.

“We’ve shown time and time again,” Mr. Ferdig said, “that the extent to which the face-to-face school provides online mentors is directly correlated to how successful the students are.”

At Notus Jr. Sr. High, where all students take at least one online course during the school year, that’s the setup Mr. Merrill has adopted. Notus uses online courses provided by the state-sponsored Idaho Digital Learning Academy, or IDLA, created seven years ago by district superintendents who believed that cooperatively they could generate high-level online courses that met state standards. The academy has its own online teaching staff.

Notus Jr. Sr. High School Principal Benjamin M. Merrill created a roster of online courses that students can take as part of their regular school day.

The Notus school building has a room equipped with 18 personal computers dedicated to online classes during the regular school day. Since many students in the district either don’t have a computer at home or don’t have high-speed Internet access, Mr. Merrill said he made it a point to have high-quality computers at school.

During each period of the school day, the classroom may be filled with students taking a variety of different courses. It’s staffed by an adult solely assigned to monitor and aid the students in their online work.

“The teacher of the online math course might live in a different town, but the classroom aide can probably answer about 80 percent of the questions,” Mr. Merrill said. The online courses have “changed how we do scheduling and how we look at education.”

The courses have also saved money. Mr. Merrill said he doesn’t have the resources to hire a Spanish teacher, for example, and the IDLA courses cost him only $50 per student per class.

Online in L.A.

But it’s not only rural districts seeking out online courses.

Themistocles Sparangis, the chief technology director for the 680,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, said online courses are some of the most popular options in his district.

The courses are often programmed into school schedules, much as they are in the Notus district, or students take an independent-study approach, working in the library or with a computer teacher during their free time.

Mr. Sparangis said the Los Angeles district, too, has had the most success with online classes when schools provide a facilitating teacher for students in real time as a support, even though the instructor is online.

That facilitating teacher does everything from coordinating lab activities in science courses and helping students get online to overseeing work that’s printed out and done on paper, Mr. Sparangis said.

He said the district taps a wide variety of online providers for its courses, including for-profit companies, colleges, and nonprofit organizations.

Students often choose to take online courses during the school day because of a scheduling conflict; because they have a specific interest in a subject not offered at their schools; or for credit recovery, one of the fastest-growing areas of online course offerings, in which students who have not passed a class can go back and earn credit for it.

“On the credit-recovery side, it adds another dimension to give them the opportunity to learn the content in a different way, which can be more differentiated for their learning style,” Mr. Sparangis said.

The seven school districts within the St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency, based in Marysville, Mich., are using online courses in a variety of innovative ways, said Joanne E. Hopper, the agency’s director of education.

The agency first began using credit-recovery classes in 2008 purchased through an online-course provider, Education2020, based in Scottsdale, Ariz. Now, high schools served by the agency are also using the courses for regular instructional support, Ms. Hopper said.

For example, if students struggle on a particular math unit in a face-to-face classroom, they will be given that part of the online course to do on their own time as review.

Other schools served by the regional agency are considering the use of online courses as a supplement to the face-to-face versions by assigning students who are struggling to do a second hour of the same coursework online. One high school already requires every student to take two hours of online coursework per day; students can schedule it whenever they like, working on it from home or in school, Ms. Hopper said.

“We think online learning is very critical,” she said. “We need to build course offerings that teach more than just rote learning.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as Schools Factoring E-Courses Into the Daily Learning Mix


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