Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
Cloudy
44°
Cloudy
Hi 61° | Lo 48°

Combining online classes with face-to-face learning

  • Hopkins Academy students gather in the school library to study online in the Virtual High School. From left are senior Ileana Carrion (Anatomy & Physiology), juniors Brennan Mitrolka and Scott Dwyer (Video Game Design), Michael Dwyer (Writing), and Carly Lewis (Latin).<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Hopkins Academy students gather in the school library to study online in the Virtual High School. From left are senior Ileana Carrion (Anatomy & Physiology), juniors Brennan Mitrolka and Scott Dwyer (Video Game Design), Michael Dwyer (Writing), and Carly Lewis (Latin).
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hopkins Academy junior Carly Lewis studies Latin in the Virtual High School online in the school library.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>

    Hopkins Academy junior Carly Lewis studies Latin in the Virtual High School online in the school library.
    KEVIN GUTTING
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hopkins Academy science teacher Cathy Niedziela teaches online in the Virtual High School consortium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Hopkins Academy science teacher Cathy Niedziela teaches online in the Virtual High School consortium.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hopkins Academy science teacher Cathy Niedziela teaches online in the Virtual High School consortium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>

    Hopkins Academy science teacher Cathy Niedziela teaches online in the Virtual High School consortium.
    KEVIN GUTTING
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hopkins Academy students gather in the school library to study online in the Virtual High School. From left are senior Ileana Carrion (Anatomy & Physiology), juniors Brennan Mitrolka and Scott Dwyer (Video Game Design), Michael Dwyer (Writing), and Carly Lewis (Latin).<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Hopkins Academy junior Carly Lewis studies Latin in the Virtual High School online in the school library.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>
  • Hopkins Academy science teacher Cathy Niedziela teaches online in the Virtual High School consortium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Hopkins Academy science teacher Cathy Niedziela teaches online in the Virtual High School consortium.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING<br/>

— On a recent morning at Hopkins Academy, some 15 students sat grouped around a bank of computers in the high school library, eyes fixed on their screens, fingers clicking away at keyboards.

While one student did some Internet research about the life of Edgar Allen Poe, two classmates were testing an original design for a video game. Across from them, another student wrestled with a statistics equation.

Despite appearances, this was not a typical high school study hall. The students were all working on class assignments online for instructors based around the country.

Through its membership in the Virtual High School Collaborative, a Maynard-based nonprofit, Hopkins Academy offers online classes for up to 25 juniors and seniors each semester. Students can choose from among more than 400 courses in the collaborative’s roster, ranging from advanced placement offerings to credit recovery courses to make up for failing grades.

In exchange, a teacher from Hopkins teaches classes to Virtual High students from 30 states and 34 countries around the globe. Class sizes are small and work can be done on a flexible schedule as long as weekly deadlines are met.

With some experts predicting that 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online by the end of the decade, many area schools are looking to boost cyber-learning opportunities for their students. Experts cite the model used by area schools of “blended learning,” where students combine online instruction with traditional face-to-face classes as the one now sweeping the K-12 field.

Hopkins Academy senior Greg Hannum, said he signed up for an online Sports and Society class because he’s interested in pursuing sports management in college and that subject wasn’t offered at his school.

“It’s really different but I like it,” Hannum said. “In a way, there’s less pressure on you. You go at your own pace.”

Junior Michael Dwyer said he was looking for “a break from regular classes” when he chose a Virtual High course on horror novels.

“In normal English classes, I don’t like the books for the most part,” said Dwyer, whose favorite subjects are computer science and music. “This one is interesting to me.”

In addition to Hopkins and Hatfield’s Smith Academy, Amherst Regional, Easthampton, South Hadley and Hampshire Regional high schools also offer students online courses through the collaborative. The 16-year-old nonprofit now provides virtual classes to students in 64 percent of middle and high schools in Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Member schools pay a basic fee of $3,450, which goes up based on the number of students enrolled. Those with teaching memberships earn additional online “seats” by having their teachers teach virtual classes. Some local schools also pay for class slots through the Northampton-based Collaborative for Educational Services.

Jeffrey Elliot, Virtual High School’s CEO, says demand for its teacher training and online courses continues to grow.

“There’s been a much broader adoption of blended learning lately in K-12,” he said. “The next most significant trend in online education is going to be a much more robust integration into the daily learning environment.”

Unlike some other states, Massachusetts doesn’t offer or regulate the use of online courses in public schools. A bill now being considered by state lawmakers would set stricter guidelines for virtual schools, where students take all of their classes online. (See related story on Page C1)

The Massachusetts Virtual Academy in Greenfield, which opened in 2010, is the first and only such school in the state.

Hadley school leaders had planned to open a virtual school with a for-profit company in 2011, but they stepped back from that effort amid state concerns about quality control and lack of oversight.

Instead, School Committee Chair Robie Grant said the district is focusing on increasing the use of classroom technology in all grades and expanding online courses for high schoolers.

“We’re looking for ways to individualize instruction and supplement our course offerings,” she said. “That’s where the push is.”

Lessons learned

When Hopkins Academy science department Chair Catherine Niedziela began teaching online seven years ago, she says she felt at a disadvantage.

“When you teach face-to-face you can direct a message to the whole class at once,” she explained. “And you see by people’s mannerisms what they are getting out of the lesson.”

To make sure she’s interpreting her students’ online comments correctly, Niedziela, who teaches AP environmental science for the collaborative, encourages them to use emoticons to suggest their feelings about the work in their posts.

Over time, she’s come to appreciate the advantages of teaching in cyberspace.

“I like the flexibility it allows me for when I do my work,” said Niedziela, a 28-year veteran of the public schools. “And I like the challenge of it. I understand now what blogs and wikis are.”

Virtual dynamics are less personal but can also be less constrained than in a regular classroom, said Smith Academy art teacher Julie Muellejans, who teaches a history of photography course for the collaborative. “Online, students feel freer to express their opinions. I’ve seen quiet students really blossom,” she said.

“It also works the other way,” Muellejans added. “For the more opinionated students, they’re not getting the attention in the same way they’re used to in a regular class.”

Virtual courses require students to work together on projects and communicate with each other via blogs and chat rooms moderated by their teacher.

Muellejans said working that way online has made her more creative about organizing group projects in her face-to-face classes.

For example, she recently had teams in different sections of her Realism to Modernism class at Smith Academy share written logs about their progress in creating camera obscuras, early photographic devices that project images onto a screen.

“Students filled out their logs and started adding drawings, notes and great positive feedback from their teammates in other sections,” Muellejans said. “What a success this was!”

At Easthampton High School, Gail Canon, school-to-work coordinator, is teaching her first online class this semester.

While her “Life After High School” course has no tests or quizzes, Canon said her 11 students are doing plenty of writing in the form of essays and online group discussions.

“When I started, I wondered if I’d really get to know the students,” she said. “But from the things they say on the blogs, you really do.”

Monitoring online conversations has been a “huge time commitment” for Canon. “You have to respond to the students every day and multiple times,” she said. “I’ve been doing a ton of work on Saturdays and Sundays.”

But overall, the experience of virtual teaching has been worthwhile, she said, noting that, “I’m happy to be current and in the 21st century.”

Local schools vary in their requirements for online courses. At EHS and Smith Academy in Hatfield, enrollments are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. At Hopkins Academy, virtual classes are limited to juniors and seniors with a 3.0 grade average or better, or approval from teachers in a similar subject area.

Even supporters agree that virtual classes are not right for every student.

“It’s effective for some kids and not so effective for others,” said Smith Academy teacher and athletic Director David Keir, now in his fourth year of teaching an online health class. “You have to be self-directed. If you’re a procrastinator, you’re not going to be successful.”

“It snowballs,” said Hopkins Academy Librarian Geraldine Bonneau, who, as the school’s Virtual High site coordinator, handles student enrollments and grade rosters for online courses. “Falling behind can get serious quickly.”

Several students in a recent online study hall said managing schedules and assignments without having a teacher present was hard at first.

“Prioritizing can be tough,” said Scott Dwyer, a junior who is taking a virtual video game design course. “I do all the work with the programs at school and then I do the rest at home. You have to get used to it.”

Science teacher Niedziela believes the independent nature of online courses makes them “almost a life skill at this point” — a way to prepare students for what they’ll be experiencing in college and careers.

Brianna Roberts, a Smith Academy senior whose World Religions class is the third she’s taken online, agrees.

“You’re challenged to have the drive to do the work on your own,” Roberts said. “Virtual classes sharpen that for you.”

One major obstacle schools face in expanding online learning is a lack of resources, administrators say.

Northampton for example, which is not a member of Virtual High School, is still catching up on needed technology improvements they say have been neglected due to lean budgets.

“We have some work to do on getting our infrastructure up and running,” said Angelo Rota, the city’s new director of Innovative Instruction/Technology. “Then we can get into more of the blended learning.”

The school department recently submitted a $300,000 capital request to the city for new servers, wireless Internet access and classroom devices that will make online courses possible.

While some schools view the consortium’s virtual courses as a cost-effective way to supplement their own offerings, says Elliot, of the Maynard-based nonprofit, “others see this as a discretionary item that they can cut back on.”

Recognizing that finances are an issue for many schools, State Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester said he plans to explore whether grants and loans from the School Building Authority could be directed to help schools build their technology infrastructure.

“It’s an important matter because some districts are very up to date but we have other corners of the state where districts don’t have broadband” Internet access, he said.

Chester said the state also hopes to play a greater role in helping schools select the most effective models for online teaching.“There are a lot of models and products out there,” he said. “We want to help identify some best practices and potential limitations.”

Elliot notes that 70 percent of the students in the nonprofit’s online classes pass AP exams, compared to a national pass rate of 58 percent.

But experts say more research is needed to identify which online strategies have the greatest impact on student achievement.

Even fans of online classes don’t want them to replace face-to-face education.

Although she’s doing well in her online honors statistics course this semester, Hopkins Academy senior Cassidy Peterson said she prefers a traditional classroom.

“You learn from the other students there with you,” she said. “I like that kind of classroom better.”

Muellejans, the Smith Academy teacher, said “there’s no substitute for being with a person.”

That’s why she believes a combination of online and face-to-face learning is the best route forward.

“It’s not an either-or choice,” Muellejans said. “The technology is here. It’s a question of striking the right balance.”

Related

Proposed state law would mean more oversight, competition for virtual schools

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A bill being considered by the Massachusetts legislature would increase state oversight and provide competition for virtual schools, defined as those where educators teach online from a remote location and students are not required to be housed in a physical school building. House Bill 4274, which has been referred to the Ways and Means Committee, states that proposals for virtual …

Legacy Comments0
There are no comments yet. Be the first!
Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.