More students venture into digital classroom for online courses

November 20, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Matthew McSweeney, 17, works at his online math course after school at Skyline High School. He says he finds math easier now that he’s learning about it online. 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 math class another go, but instead 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, explaining 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.”

It also helps, he added, that the credit retrieval course in basic math explains everything with digital pages full of step-by-step instructions that he can review anytime he has questions.

McSweeney is one of a group of about 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 where 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.”

Educators on hand to help

Skyline students count for about half of the 191 students in the Issaquah School District who are enrolled in an online course. The majority of those are in high school — only eight are middle school students. Liberty High School has 56 students enrolled, 38 at Issaquah High School are taking the courses online and Tiger Mountain Community High School has five.

At Liberty, students have the option to use one of their eight periods to work on their online course in a computer lab that is blocked out for the purpose and has a specialty-trained education assistant on hand to assist struggling students.

“If we set it up as part of their regular school day, then they see it as part of their regular routine,” Liberty Vice Principal Sean Martin said. “In that supervised environment, they have to be logged in to that course. She gets progress reports, finds out what struggles they are having.”

There are two main reasons students at Liberty take online courses, Martin said: to study things that are not offered, like German and digital photography, and the other, most common reason is to retrieve credits in classes they didn’t do so well in before.

“For them, to then come in and be getting between 70 and 85 percent … for them, compared to what they were doing before, is a big improvement,” Martin said. “This has given them an opportunity to show that improvement and continue learning and continue growing.”

Online trend is increasing

The district first began offering online courses in fall 2010 with the help of tech levy funds that were approved by voters earlier that year. The intent, explained Kaluza, online learning coordinator, 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,” Kaluza said at the Sept. 25 Issaquah School Board meeting, where she spoke about the rising online participation. “The word is out, students are engaged.”

Taking courses online appeals to students for a variety of reasons, she later said in an email, like those International Baccalaureate/Advanced Placement students who have alleviated their busy schedule by taking the online health/physical education course that can be completed during the summer or outside school hours. Last year, 173 students took advantage of this option.

Aside from the district’s own hybrid online health class, the courses are all done through the state’s digital learning department. Controlled by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the department offers hundreds of online courses from OSPI-approved providers to all public middle and high schools in Washington. The average cost for one of the courses is $300, and if a student takes one as part of his or her six- or eight-period school day, then the district collects state funds to pay for it.

Tests, quizzes and skill sets

On the Web

Find more information about Issaquah School District online courses at www.issaquah.wednet.edu. Under the ‘Academics’ tab, click on ‘Online Learning.’

Just like in regular classes, there are tests. Midterm and final exams are proctored at the schools by a supervisor, usually Kaluza. Other smaller tests and quizzes, she explained, are taken at home, but the courses come with safeguards against cheating, like not allowing the student to open up any other Internet windows, time constrictions that log test-takers out if they take too long and software that checks written answers against a database for plagiarism.

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

“I always tell the students that they are developing a skill set that is going to benefit them later, as they continue through high school and into college or a career path of their choosing,” she said. Those include, she 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 can’t replace interaction

But not everyone is a fan of online courses.

“Online learning in and of itself 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.”

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