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May 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 8

Bringing Online Learning to Life

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Mizu, Water." Peter introduces the Japanese word of the day. The class applauds, and Peter takes a dramatic bow. Adorning the space above the windows are many more previously introduced Japanese words.
Courtney shares highlights from the novel she is reading for her Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature class. She commiserates with Zoe, who is taking AP Art History, about the volume of work required in these higher-level classes. These students are sharing a glimpse of what they have been learning online with their local classmates.
Soon, the students get to work on their own assignments. Monica and Stephanie prepare letters to mail to a local day-care center requesting permission to observe a student as part of the final project for their child care management course. Mark prepares for his psychology quiz, and Rebecca learns sign language.
All of this learning is taking place in a single 42-minute class period in a computer lab at Henry Hudson Regional School, a small public school in Highlands, New Jersey, serving about 500 students in grades 7–12. Three years ago, we ventured into online learning so that we could expand our limited elective, advanced placement, and foreign language offerings.

Organizing Learning

This year, we have 12 students taking online courses ranging from psychology to Latin to AP Physics. Two periods per day, each 42 minutes long, are designated for mixed grade-level, online classes. Each day, students report to the computer lab for class, just as they might report to a traditional English classroom or chemistry lab. Most of the classes are Web-based courses that come with a hardcopy textbook, with assignments and quizzes delivered online.
Two adults oversee the learning process: The facilitator is a certified district teacher who monitors the work of the students during the class period. The content specialist is the virtual teacher whom students interact with online.
The facilitator teaches students how to succeed in a virtual classroom. Students are used to the traditional approach of raising their hand for an immediate response, and the facilitator must ensure that students know how to communicate frequently with the content specialist by e-mail or telephone. The facilitator also keeps track of how the students are progressing in their courses. The facilitator must understand how each student's course is structured and what monitoring tools are available.
Facilitators can be certified in any subject. We assign facilitators primarily on the basis of teacher schedules, although we try to take teachers' areas of expertise into consideration. For example, we assigned a history-certified teacher to the online classes this year because we would be offering online AP courses in U.S. history and European history for the first time. As program coordinator, I meet with the facilitators at the beginning of the year to go over their responsibilities, and I stay in touch with them throughout the year.
Because students in an online classroom may be taking a wide variety of courses, the facilitator cannot be expected to be an expert in all of the content. The students have a content expert available, but not a traditional teacher who stands in front of a classroom. The content specialist, usually a professor, may be just an e-mail away.
Content specialists are not distant experts who focus only on the content without taking any interest in students' learning. For example, one student, Monica, e-mailed her content teacher for advice after she failed a test. The teacher allowed her to study again and retake the test in three days. Megan's online teacher was understanding when computer problems kept her from handing in an assignment on time.

Choosing the Classes

Each summer, we consider student requests and purchase courses. This year we have worked with two vendors, Educere ( and MOESC ( They consult closely with us on course content and cost. Staff members from Educere come to the school and work personally with each online learner. A learning consultant from Educere also keeps tabs on the students' progress and communicates by e-mail with students, Hudson faculty, and parents. MOESC also offers personal interaction, particularly in its online language classes. For example, content teachers contact students by phone to quiz them in the proper pronunciation of Latin words.
  • Is there a syllabus?
  • Is it a semester- or year-long course?
  • Can this course be used to fulfill graduation requirements?
  • Is there any way to track students' progress as they work through the course?
  • Will college credits be awarded?
  • Is there a final project?
  • How is the class graded?
  • How can students contact the teacher or professor?
  • What if the course you buy is not what you (or the student) expected? How long do students have to drop a class without the school having to pay the full price for the course?
You may find that some classes are not suited to online instruction. For example, some may believe that a foreign language class is of limited usefulness when the student has no one to speak the words to. Others may question whether a literature class loses something when students have no physical community to share insights with. It can also be difficult to evaluate a potential course when you don't know much about the subject matter.
Many online classes are not designed with the high school student in mind. For example, we purchased a child care management class that offers a certificate to adults interested in starting a day-care center. The students learned valuable information about running a day-care center, but the final project could easily overwhelm an average high school sophomore. When the students were required to research and contact early childhood associations, they had no idea where to start. The facilitator took the lead to guide and direct them.

Benefits of Online Learning

As a small school, we've used online learning to offer courses that would not otherwise be economically feasible. With online learning, students gain opportunities to explore unusual interests while taking charge of their own learning. They use technological skills that will benefit them for years to come. Students go beyond the barriers of the school building and access a vast sea of knowledge. And the Internet gives students access to types of resources that would be unavailable to them if they were learning just from a textbook. Peter's class in Japanese, for example, provided sound files from native speakers that helped him learn the proper pronunciation.
Students can use online classes to achieve college credits in high school, thus boosting the chance of college admittance. The experience of taking online classes also builds learning skills that can help students with the more independent learning often required in college. When a teacher is not available for immediate response, students are more likely to try to solve a problem on their own.
Online classes can be used to help the homebound student, satisfy summer school requirements, and resolve scheduling conflicts. The flexibility in subject matter, scheduling, and time required makes online learning a useful way to deal with students who need nontraditional learning opportunities.

Challenges of Online Learning

Online classes can be a blessing or a curse. In the first year we offered online classes, a student who wanted to be a doctor achieved the highest score in the United States in his virtual anatomy and physiology class. We were proud and happy. But in the same year, we took a financial hit for several classes we purchased that students dropped after the vendor's drop period. We have since developed a contract to be signed by a recommending counselor, a teacher who knows the student well, and the technology supervisor. In the contract, the parent and student agree to reimburse the school district for the cost of the course if the student drops the class past the vendor's drop period or if the student fails. Only serious-minded students need apply.
Another unanticipated problem occurred when two students told their facilitator they did the work at home and wanted to use class time as a study hall. The students were working, but the facilitator felt a lack of control over the situation. Another student worked hard but failed the class. We have alleviated these problems by giving the facilitator 25 percent of the grading responsibility. Thus, participation counts. Students can no longer work at home and use the assigned period as a study hall. The facilitator can also acknowledge students who give 100 percent to a course that is just too difficult for them.
The biggest obstacle, one we still face, is the difference in the amount of time it takes students to complete their courses. Some students are finished in December, some in May, some not by June. We have been handling these challenges on a case-by-case basis, by allowing students who are finished to use the class period as a study hall or granting extensions to students who need more time.

The Learning Journey

Our student pioneers have taught us much. They have endured educational hardships, encountered many opportunities, and plunged into a virtual river without testing the water first. We have had successes and failures, but the pride of having shaped this venture is evident in each student.
Our online learning adventure has made it clear that teaching content is only part of education. Our content experts are necessary, but we have to provide much more to ensure success for our students. Students must learn to pursue knowledge and become self-directed learners. They have to learn to filter mounds of information and successfully sort the fluff from the substance. They are venturing into a virtual world that did not exist when many of us went to high school. They can pursue their interests without the limitations of bricks and mortar. As educators, we are leading them on a path that we may be taking for the first time. It's worth the trip.

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