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Online high school courses grow in popularity

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / May 30, 2010

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PLYMOUTH — Robert Morgan had a dilemma as he scheduled his classes this year: The Plymouth South High School senior wanted to take creative writing, but it conflicted with the Latin class he needed for graduation credit.

Rather than having to choose, Morgan looked to Virtual High School, a 14-year-old Massachusetts-based consortium that offers 336 online courses to 13,000 students in 31 states and 34 countries around the world.

The organization began as a two-year pilot program with the state Department of Education. Now, when Morgan fires up his laptop for the writing class, he’s rubbing elbows with students on the East and West coasts, and even one in Brazil.

“I like having others critique me,’’ said the 17-year-old. “And I’m amazed at how similar we all are,’’ even at a distance.

About half of Massachusetts’ school districts belong to the Virtual High School network. Full members pay $8,000 annually for 25 seats in cyber classrooms and must train one teacher to offer an online course. Smaller schools with limited needs or budgets can rent a few seats from other members.

The program covers credit recovery work for students who have failed courses and are seeking to recover credits — or home- or hospital-based learning for teens with medical, emotional, or disciplinary needs — and advanced classes for others whose districts can’t afford to offer them.

“It is very satisfying to know that school leaders understand the value of online courses and how they can enrich programming for students,’’ said Liz Pape, president and CEO of the consortium. “It’s more than just offering online courses. These are online discussions with kids all over the world.’’

Courses cover topics ranging from music composition, Caribbean art history, and photography, to Mandarin, engineering, and biology, Pape said. In biology, the dozen or so required lab sessions are completed through simulation.

Pape and others said the Virtual High School concept is a perfect blend of screen and face-to-face class time that prepares students for college. Similar online efforts are gaining ground elsewhere as well; New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy, for example, has more than 7,000 students.

The Virtual High School proves that the Internet is not just about downloading, Pape said: “It’s about creating.’’

The International Association of K-12 Online Learning, meanwhile, says 10 percent of all courses will be computer-based by 2014, and in 2019 about 50 percent will be online.

Additionally, educational technology consultant Ambient Learning says 2 million American high school students are already learning online, a number expected to jump to 10 million by 2014.

This year, West Bridgewater began offering the online program with two seats, and has committed to 12 seats in the fall, said high school principal Jeffrey Syzmaniak.

Seats will be rented from the North River Collaborative, a Rockland-based nonprofit providing educational services and resources to area school districts.

“You look for the student who can work independently,’’ Syzmaniak said. “It’s valid. It’s worth it. It has broadened the curriculum and is an opportunity to showcase 21st-century skills.’’

In September, West Bridgewater students will choose whatever course they want, he said. “Whatever floats their boats. I’m not putting any limits on them.’’

Next door, East Bridgewater High School will join the program next year.

But some school systems are opting to design and implement their own online learning programs. In Dedham, for example, technology director Don Langenhorst said the district plans to move its computer requirement online in September in a new, in-house program. Computer business will be the inaugural offering.

Langenhorst, who also teaches online courses at Framingham State College, said Dedham couldn’t afford to hire teachers for the needed sections, so it made sense to go online. And it chose not to join the Virtual High School network, to save on the cost of membership.

“Recently, we got the union and the School Committee to agree,’’ he said.

Dedham, though, has been online for years in terms of message boards, discussions, and the like. It is also involved in the Education Cooperative, a Dedham-based independent organization that provides communities including Canton, Norwood, Walpole, and Westwood with online learning options.

In Plymouth, Superintendent Gary Maestas says 50 students take courses with Virtual High School — now in its eighth year in the 8,500-student district — while another 20-plus students explore other providers. Classes range from advanced placement physics to poetry.

More than $2 million was cut from Plymouth’s school budget this year, following $3 million over the past several years, Maestas said, making the Virtual High School alternative even more attractive. Online classes are cheaper and offer the variety students want.

Nancy Dawson, the district’s director of online learning, runs between the town’s two high schools. Like Pape, she says students need the socialization a real classroom provides.

“Research shows that blended learning works best,’’ Dawson said. “Especially in high school.’’

Still, cyber learning has its own benefits. For Plymouth South’s Greg Kulowiec, teaching sports in American society online blends his love of athletics with history. Kulowiec’s 23 students check in daily and complete required assignments. But unlike work in a traditional classroom, these studies can be completed at any time, in any location, day or night, seven days a week, as long as there is computer access.

Although the learning curve for students is steep, Kulowiec said he took easily to the concept. “I absolutely love it, and look to the day I can do one or two other classes.’’

And while the consensus is generally positive, some Plymouth South students said online acclimation took time.

“It was a little bit harder,’’ said Kayla Rose, 18, who needed US history credits after failing the class her sophomore year. “But I could look back at the work if I needed to.’’

Devin Ford, 17, takes principles of engineering online because the classroom course he wanted conflicted with a higher-level math course.

“I find it hard to keep up, actually,’’ he said, during an interview at school. “I prefer the face-to-face.’’

Senior Casey Murphy, also 17, said she’s glad to take consumer math for credit now, after failing geometry.

“It’s easier in one way because, if you don’t understand, you can go back,’’ she said. “And it’s better than sitting in a class with distractions.’’

Dawson says she feels fortunate Plymouth has online learning that also offers life lessons. Take the student who was studying web design with an instructor in Venezuela.

“Suddenly, the teacher disappeared for a few weeks,’’ said Dawson. “When he resurfaced, the student found out there had been a political coup. That really tied us into another world.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.

Still growing
Virtual High School, a 14-year-old Massachusetts-based organization, offers 336 online courses to nearly 13,000 students in 31 states and 34 countries around the world. About half of the school districts in Massachusetts belong.

More than 80 percent of students taking a VHS course successfully complete the course. VHS?s advanced placement exam pass rate is 64 percent, compared with the national AP exam pass rate of 60 percent.

Benefits for school members:

?Instantly expands course offerings without the cost of adding onsite classes.

?Meets diverse student learning interests and needs by offering a full catalog of courses.

?Overcomes student scheduling challenges by offering anytime, anywhere online courses.

?Receives online professional development training without the need to incur travel and substitution costs.

?Continually expanding offerings, such as summer school, dual credit, and international baccalaureate courses.

School districts in the area that participate in Virtual High:

Abington
Avon
Braintree
Brockton
Cohasset
East Bridgewater
Fontbonne Academy
Foxborough
Hanover
Holbrook
Lakeville
Middleborough
Milton
Norwell
Plymouth
Rockland
Southeastern Regional Vo-tech
Wareham
Whitman

Source: Virtual High School at www.govhs.org

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