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Using Online Courses to Expand Student Choice

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Using Online Courses to Expand Student Choice

This Michigan school uses 200 self-created and purchased courses to complement its traditional classes. By Charlie Gragg

Seven years ago, our district, Holly Area Schools in Michigan, began working with online content providers to offer advanced placement courses at our high school to match student interests. Over time, our Internet-based learning community grew to offer more than 200 courses through an online collaborative of schools. Now it has evolved further to include our own internal online teachings. At each stage of its evolution, our program has produced wonderful results in terms of engagement and academic achievement by our students. Partnering with the right course provider allowed us to add efficiency, innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit to an already outstanding foundation.

In our early days, we worked with five or six different content providers, an approach that meant students worked with different LMS platforms, policies and procedures, grading philosophies, teacher beliefs, and so on. We could have continued in this manner, but we wouldn’t have been able to grow as easily. Eventually we reduced our online learning providers to two, including the Virtual High School (VHS, Inc.) online collaborative. Joining VHS has allowed us to offer the more than 200 courses we currently do.

The collaborative provides three distinct administrative advantages to our school district. First, the additional course offerings allow students to either supplement their field of interest or experiment with new possibilities. It would simply be too expensive to provide a full curriculum of courses for pockets of two to five students interested in, for example, pre-veterinary medicine, nuclear engineering, or AP music theory. Second, the independence of the course work simulates a college environment, a benefit cited by both parents and students. Our juniors and seniors have an opportunity to polish their collaborative, time management, and other skills en route to college. Third, the asynchronous nature of the courses allows infinitely more scheduling flexibility because students can be scheduled for any hour of the day.

The courses also offer time flexibility by offsetting instructional weeks from Wednesday through Tuesday, so as to provide weekend catch-up time. Assignment deadlines are set at midnight, local time, to accommodate time zone differences and adolescent sleep schedules.

 

How We Create Our Own Online Teachers

We are also doing something unique in our high school. We have about 100 students enrolled in the online electives provided by the collaborative, and another 100 enrolled in internal electives, which are designed, taught, and populated with Holly students and teachers. The collaborative has allowed us to use the Brightspace learning management system from Desire2Learn for our internal courses as well as parts of their curriculum. I say “parts” because we have substantially modified the curriculum to suit our internal needs more directly; VHS calls these modified courses “custom offerings.” Students have scheduled time in a computer lab, and teachers engage with them as needed. Our teachers lead the internal courses on their prep hour, serving small groups of 10–15 students.

Managing an online course calls for intensive professional development since teachers have to master not only the technology involved but also the techniques and practices that will make online learning effective. And as part of the collaborative, we were required to have a portion of our high school faculty train and serve as online instructors. Each instructor must pass a rigorous six-week course that enables him or her to experience every facet of an online curriculum and LMS in the same capacity and at the same pace as their future students will.

I will never forget one colleague in my training class a few summers ago. She figured out how to use her iPad for the first time when she was in Paris, accompanying her band students on a European trip. I share this story with my own online students as an example of being resourceful when your learning community depends on your participation. Additionally, one of my site coordinators recently told me how he used his own learning experience to encourage a student. He said, “I simply shared with him what my experiences were this past summer in the training course. I told him that I scored 50 percent on my first discussion forum because I did not participate enough.”

Now 20 percent of our high school staff (12 of about 60 teachers) teach online courses. Some work with the collaborative, while others teach the internal online courses. Our teachers will universally tell you (and professional research confirms) that teaching online has made them better face-to-face classroom teachers. The reasons vary, but some general observations and comments confirm that the tight curriculum design required of an online course helps teachers learn how to improve their face-to-face curriculum so that it focuses on the central skills and understanding and weeds out unnecessary information and assignments. Additionally, they learned the value of communication and fast feedback on graded assignments.

Whether an online offering is a vendor-provided course or a customized internal course, it includes asynchronous class discussions that require responses to student comments as well as three or four student posts on different days of the week. Discussions are far richer because students have time to reflect and comment after engaging with the lesson resources and readings. The 25-student class limit and the fact that class members are distributed across multiple states—and even countries—also eliminates “hormone syndrome” and “clique syndrome” (that is, reticence due to fear of what a potential boyfriend/ girlfriend or a social group representative in the classroom will think). In short, the dialogue is far richer than we could ever achieve in our classrooms. In addition, there are private forums for those necessary one-on-one discussions with teachers.

Our primary motivation for offering an online learning community is to provide subject material that can help students fine-tune their interests in college majors—subject matter they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Additionally, we want to prepare students for the independence, collaboration, and communication with instructors that college requires, and provide scheduling flexibility for students with critical needs outside of school. The evolution of our online learning community reflects our ongoing commitment to innovative approaches that enhance student learning.

Charlie Gragg is the online coordinator at Holly High School in Holly, Michigan.

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