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Editorial: Online learning’s limits

  • 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

    Hopkins Academy junior Carly Lewis studies Latin in the Virtual High School online in the school library.
    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

As technology advances, area public schools are investing time, energy and money in online instruction for students. Experts predict that half of all high school courses will be presented online by the end of the decade, so these schools are keeping up with the times.

Through their participation in Virtual High School Collaborative, a Maynard-based nonprofit, at least a half-dozen local high schools have enriched their class listings substantially — and in a fairly economical way. High school students in Hadley, Hatfield, Easthampton, South Hadley, Amherst and at Hampshire Regional now have the opportunity to choose from more than 400 courses.

This is no small thing when you consider the budget issues public schools grapple with, a belt-tightening that has hindered their ability, at times, to offer a robust slate of courses.

This semester alone, Hopkins Academy students are enrolled in virtual courses covering a great variety of subjects: video game design, Latin, statistics, anatomy and physiology, horror novels and writing, to name a few.

Their “classmates” for these online courses come from 30 states and 34 countries, which means they are taking part in a diverse learning environment with a great deal to offer.

Still, we have concerns. And at the risk of sounding like Luddites, we would encourage area school officials who are integrating these courses into their high school offerings to do so in a measured, thoughtful manner.

We think school leaders must remain cognizant that the heart and soul of learning lies in the teacher-student relationship. That is hard to replicate when teachers and students never see one another face to face.

As area schools add to their course offerings with online classes, they must do so in a way that is in keeping with their academic mission and long-term vision. This means discussing how online courses should be integrated into the traditional curriculum and bringing school committee representatives, parents, students, and teachers to the table for these conversations.

And when local teachers offer online courses, as is increasingly happening, there should be training, collaboration and assessment involved, just as there is in traditional classes.

In Hadley, a plan to open a virtual school in 2011 was scrapped amid concerns about quality control and lack of oversight. This was not a bad decision, given that student learning is at stake here. When educational innovations surface, they must be fully vetted. Experts say more research is needed to pinpoint the best online learning strategies. We look forward to that research.

It is clear that online courses have definite advantages. Class sizes are small, work can be done on a flexible schedule, students get to learn with others from all over the world and are taught by a wider variety of teachers. Experts praise “blended learning,” in which students receive a mix of online courses and traditional instruction.

The Virtual High School Collaborative now provides online instruction in 64 percent of the state’s middle and high schools — among them several Hampshire County schools. Member schools pay a fee depending upon the number of students enrolled. The base fee is $3,450. Schools whose teachers offer courses online can earn slots for their students taking classes, which lowers costs.

Teachers say they, too, appreciate the flexibility online courses provide. They also report that class dynamics online can have a positive, equalizing force, noting that quiet students can shine while more talkative students are less dominant.

One local teacher told a Gazette reporter that when she first taught online she missed the cues — body language and mannerisms — present in a traditional classroom. These often help teachers gauge how their lessons are being received, so they can then figure out how to fine tune them.

She instructed her students to use emoticons, which she says now help her assess how students are doing to figure out how to change her lesson plan. That’s a creative solution. But emoticons are no substitute for the real thing: authentic reactions and face-to-face interactions among people.

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