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The Virtual Classroom


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They say there are as many reasons for transitioning from traditional to online schools as there are students making the switch.

A number of super-star athletes and jet-setting musicians, who may just need to take an algebra test at 10 p.m. in Nashville, have transferred to online schools. There are recovering drop-outs, teenagers who need jobs to help support their families in the down economy, and students who weren’t challenged in brick-and-mortar schools. Often, it’s the parents who want their kids at home and away from the influences of their peers.

For Felisha Bernhardt, 17, it was a child.

When Bernhardt learned that she was expecting, the North Metro area teen went over her choices: She could stay in school during the pregnancy but risk missing classes, lessons and labs because of doctor appointments. She could drop out.

The soft-spoken teen had a third option that would not have been available to a young mother a decade ago: an online public school.

Now, every day she opens her laptop, which she received for free from her online school, and logs on to a virtual classroom.

“It’s more convenient, and it’s on my own time,” she says. “At first, it seemed like a handful. I had to learn to be organized and be consistent. You don’t have a teacher to tell you to do homework or to do a lesson. But you get the hang of it and it gets easier.”

With a flexible schedule of online classes that she can “attend” when she wants, Bernhardt will graduate next year. She has plans for college and a career, and she says it couldn’t be done without Insight Schools, a multi-district online school that offers classes in eight states across the country.

“This option gave me freedom to live as a mother and a student. I thought I wouldn’t graduate,” she says. “…It’s changed my life: gave me the option to succeed outside of traditional school.”

It’s an option that is increasingly being sought out by K–12 students in Colorado and beyond. Enrollment numbers are soaring, and as technology has improved so have opportunities for online learning and virtual schools. Radio and TV advertisements now peddle an educational promise land where students take classes in their pajamas and get a free computer to boot, and public school districts are steadily developing online options for students.

“What we’ve seen in Colorado is a huge expansion of the online school movement,” said Denise Perrault, executive director of Insight School of Colorado. “I believe it’s based on an increased awareness. Plus, technology has increased, making online education more accessible.”

More than 13,000 Colorado students were enrolled in online schools fulltime in 2009. According to Della R. Shorman, principal consultant for the Colorado Department of Education’s Unit of Online Learning, the finalized October 2010 online student count is not available, but with the increased number of both multi- and single-district programs, she anticipates enrollment numbers to increase 10–20 percent. In 2008, there were 14 full-time multi-district certified programs in Colorado. That number has grown to 22 multi-district online programs currently certified by the State Board of Education; multi-district programs serve online students throughout the state.

Whether policymakers, education leaders, or parents are ready or not, the idea of the “classroom” may completely shift as tens of thousands of students opt for the laptop over the lab, the desktop computer over the desk.

Insight Schools’ Denise Perrault started her career in traditional classrooms but made the switch to online when the movement was just unfolding. She laughs when she reminisces about the early days.
“I think the first thing you have to think about, there were no online schools. There were no models. They were drawing the plane while it was flying,” she says. “Now, it’s like, we have super-sonic jets that fly across the planet. It’s light years better. It was primitive back then. There was no technology. There weren’t courses. …But there have been growing pains.”

Despite those aches, students have flocked. The reasoning: Some students just don’t fit in the “traditional” mold, Perrault and others say, and for a certain type of person, the virtual classroom is a better fit than being in a room full of students and being face to face with a teacher.

“This is not the end-all for every student. It’s another tool that we can access,” says Kurt LeVasseur, director for Career and Technical Education and Online Learning for Boulder Valley School District, which started its own online school just this year. “It extends the days and the year for students, and it allows many students to accelerate or work at their own pace. That algebra class might be too fast, but (with online classes) the content doesn’t move unless the student does.”

That’s not to say that online schools are easier than traditional schools. Bernhardt says her friends thought her new school would be a free ride.

“They thought online is the lazy way of doing school,” she says. “I think it is as much of a challenge as traditional schools. You have to be responsible and motivated.”

There are no bells telling students to go to class, no teacher hovering nearby to check on a student’s progress. It’s up to the students to get all their lessons completed, tests taken and homework turned in. Some students treat it like a normal day of school. Like Bernhardt, they get up in the morning and check out their assignments. Others start their classes at 9pm and work until 2am. Some do a four-day week; others spread their work over seven days. Some will tackle a week’s worth of biology lessons in one day; others will treat their classes similar to the traditional experience—doing six subjects a day, five days a week.

“It’s not like, ‘I have to be at the bus stop in the morning.’ It’s ‘I can get up when I want and be at school.’ It’s flexible,” says Chaille Hymes, elementary principal for online learning at Connections Academy, “But you have classes sitting there waiting for you. You have to budget.”

Depending on the school and the program, students journal, take part in online discussions, work through lessons and activities, and watch streaming videos, live instruction from their teacher or an avatar teacher. They take physical education classes. Some schools do virtual field trips, real field trips and science fairs. Insight School has a prom; Colorado Connections Academy has a back-to-school ice cream social.

And they are not alone. Students often have teachers, mentors or counselors helping them, answering questions or leading discussions; in fact, the CDE notes in its annual report for online education, that the more students have access to teachers and the smaller the student/teacher ratio, the greater the student growth.

Parents are also considered a major part of the program. If the siren song of the Xbox or iPhone entices a student away from a lesson on the periodic table, then a parent can be the difference between academic success and the high score on Angry Birds.

“It’s a big responsibility for the parent, who is really acting as a learning coach,” Hymes says. “It’s a lot of work. It’s challenging, and it’s a commitment.”

In the Boulder Valley School District, online classes have become multipurpose tools for a diverse group of students.

In fact, it’s been a revolutionary concept in helping students who need extra help. Two years ago, BVSD started a pilot program called credit recovery—with 50 students who needed to improve grades or get credits. Completion rates soared as BVSD worked to improve student support for credit recovery.

“We found that students were succeeding with proper support, a mentor to help get them going, overseeing what they are doing on a weekly basis. The more active the mentor is, the student is more successful,” LeVasseur said.

Then, last spring the CDE approved Boulder Universal, the district’s year round 6th–12th grade virtual school. This fall, Boulder Universal opened, and now the district has 116 with Boulder Universal students, 200 credit recovery seats that rotates every eight weeks, and 65 students taking an online class at their brick-and-mortar school.

Boulder Universal participants can become full-time online students or they can be a hybrid­—taking a mixture of both online and traditional classes.

Much of the motivation for expanding BVSD’s online offerings came after losing hundreds of students: More than 160 students left BVSD schools for other online programs in the 2008–09 school year, 152 left in the 2009–10 school year.

Several other districts throughout Colorado have developed their own online schools. Some contract with an online school; Insight has a contract through the Julesburg School District but offers classes to students all over the state. Some are chartered, like brick-and-mortar charter schools, and some districts start their own programs, like BVSD and Poudre School District. By starting these programs, districts maintain student numbers as well as at least most of the funding that comes with those students.

Another motivator for BVSD and other districts is that they get to do online learning their way. LeVasseur says some of the other online schools students were attending had around 60 percent completion rates.
“We think we can do a better job. We want to be better,” he said. “And we need to provide better flexibility to students: for the uber flutist, for the hockey players, for the students who need to go at their
own pace.”

LeVasseur says they have learned that students want to work “at any pace, anytime, any place.” And as arbiters of knowledge for teenagers, districts have to keep up with the times.

“We are truly meeting the need,” LeVasseur says. “Students are more fearless when it comes to engaging with online content. They are digital natives. We need to do a better job at educating them.”

Which means that the goal for online schools cannot simply be taking the classroom and uploading it to the web. It can’t be all text or lectures. It’s must be rich and interactive. Teachers say that lessons need to include some text, some media, then text that is read to the student and then maybe a game or two, appealing to different types of learners.

Some online schools are using lessons that have student avatars running through time and place, experiencing moments in American history. Other brick-and-mortar schools have phased out all textbooks, and students carry their laptops from classroom to classroom. Some students have shown increased comprehension of topics while using game-based courses. Other innovations are focused on individualizing learning plans and differentiating instruction.

“The teacher is not the only the sage on the stage,” says LeVasseur, pontificating on the future of online learning. “They are not directing the learning. They are able to take content, depending on if you have a higher-end learner, and make it deeper. You are delivering the content and tailoring their assignments.”
BVSD currently uses an outside company to create their online lessons. That is a barrier to progress, LeVasseur admits. Training BVSD teachers for online classes will allow for more individualized learning and a blended learning environment.

“Hopefully we can get there in the near future. Online learning is difficult. You have to reframe teaching and the approach for students. The really good online teachers will be doing Skype, podcasts and synchronous learning.”

But what may be the biggest barriers for online schools in general are the misconceptions: Virtual schools are still school, and there is still much to learn.

“It is very rigorous curriculum,” LeVasseur says. “Literally, people think it will be perfect, like students won’t have questions. We want questions. We want them to be stimulated. They don’t just sit in front of the computer all day. There are science experiments, they are writing papers, they are going to the library.”

For information on Boulder Universal, visit bvsd.org/boulderuniversal.

For the Colorado Department of Education’s Unit of Online Learning, including a list of online schools, visit www.cde.state.co.us/onlinelearning/

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email no info send march17th/09

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