Digital classroom: more and more students take online courses

October 23, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Matthew McSweeney spends a lot of time on the computer. So when the senior at Skyline High School failed geometry last year, his parents suggested he give the class another go, but this time online. Fast-forward to fall semester and McSweeney is less than half way through his online course but is already three weeks ahead in the material.

“Some people think it’s hard, but for me I think it’s easier because I just learn better through a computer,” he said.

He noted that he has a hard time concentrating in class because it’s hard to ignore all the other things going on around him. “So instead, I can work at home and not have to hear other students and it’s more personal.”

Online learning is becoming more and more widespread in the Issaquah School District. Some district officials hail the extra opportunities it gives students. There are some, however, who say students miss out on educational opportunities when they don’t go to more traditional classes.

 

How it works

McSweeney is one of a group of around 16 students that meet after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Skyline’s library to work on their online courses. Skyline requires its online students who don’t have outside support, like a tutor, to attend these sessions. This way Marianne Kaluza, who oversees the program for the entire district, and education assistant Kathi Eide can answer questions and monitor their progress.

“Knowing they have to be here two days a week slows the procrastination process,” said Eide, who is a fan of the online option. “What I like about it is that it’s easily accessible.”

Skyline students count for about half of the 182 students across the Issaquah School District that are currently enrolled in an online course. Virtually all of the students are in high school — only seven are middle school students. Liberty High School has 58 students enrolled, 32 from Issaquah High School are taking the courses online and Tiger Mountain Community High School has two.

At Liberty, students can use one of their eight periods to work on their online course in a computer lab set aside for this purpose with a specialty-trained education assistant on hand.

There are two main reasons students at Liberty take online courses, said Martin, to study things that are not offered or to earn credits in classes they didn’t do so well in before.

“This has given them an opportunity to show that improvement and continue learning, and continue growing,” said Sean Martin, Liberty’s vice principal.

The district began offering online courses in the fall of 2010. The intent, explained Kaluza, was to provide students with more learning options. At that time, 13 students signed up. Two years later hundreds have taken advantage of online courses.

“You can see our trend is very much increasing,” said Kaluza at the Sept. 25 at the Issaquah School Board meeting, where she spoke about the rising online participation. “The word is out, students are engaged.”

Taking courses online appeals to different students for a variety of reasons, she said in an email. For example, IB/AP students have freed space in their schedule by taking the online Health/P.E. course that can be completed during the summer or outside of school hours. Last year 173 students took advantage of this option.

Aside from the district’s own online health class, the courses are done through the state’s digital learning department, which offers hundreds of online courses from state-approved providers. The average cost for one of these courses is $300, and if a student takes it as part of their six- or eight-period school day, the district collects state funds to pay for it.

Just like regular classes, there are tests. Mid-term and final exams are proctored at the schools by a supervisor. Other smaller tests and quizzes are taken at home, but the courses come with safeguards against cheating.

Online learning is becoming more sophisticated and accessible, said Kaluza.

“I always tell the students that they are developing a skill set that is going to benefit them later,” she said. Those include, Kaluza added, skills in technology, organization, time management, self-advocacy and communication. “There is not someone saying ‘Missy, you look confused, do you have a question?’ Until they tell us, we don’t know, so they learn good communication skills that way.”

 

Online misses interaction

But not everyone is a fan of online courses.

“Online learning in and of its self is not necessarily bad. It’s another way to deliver course content…when I teach, I put stuff online all the time,” said Bill Lyne, an English professor at Western Washington University. “But it’s more and more becoming a way for school districts to save money, and the way they save money is by eliminating their largest expense: teachers.”

It’s not just teachers that Lyne believes students miss out on when they take a course online. It’s also the exchange of ideas that happens when students work together in a classroom.

“The discussion you have among your peers is invaluable,” he said. “Students bring different insights with different backgrounds…you are going to learn all kinds of things that you are not going to learn if you just sit down and read a book and take a test on it.”

The district does have a two-credit limit for online courses and explains on its website that it does this because “it is difficult to certify the education delivered by your high school when multiple courses are delivered by outside providers.”

More information about online courses can be found by visiting www.issaquah.wednet.edu. Under the “Academics” tab click on “Online Learning.”

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