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Technology creates virtual schools, giving students more options for learning

Education 2000: Reforming schools for a new century

Tuesday, August 29, 2000

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Harvard University professor Chris Dede doesn't expect anyone to be talking about distance education in 10 years.

 
    Education 2000: Reforming schools for a new century

Part One: The high stakes of assessment testing

Part Two: Smaller is better

 
 

Dede, a professor of learning technologies, just expects distance learning to become commonplace in American high schools -- just one more method of teaching and learning.

"It will mean that teachers everywhere and learners everywhere have a more powerful set of resources," said Dede, "and a greater sense of what the world is like outside of the classroom."

Distance education in kindergarten through 12th grade is still in its infancy, but the idea really isn't new. The University of Nebraska, for example, started its distance learning program in 1929 -- in the form of high school correspondence courses.

Today's distance learning, however, isn't limited to snail-mail. It includes technology ranging from CD-ROMs to the Internet to satellite dishes.

Distance education also is being used for one-time exchanges between schools, virtual field trips or electronic visits with experts.

"This is just the beginning of what's really going to become a very large area for education and a completely different way of providing education to our students, be they high school students or college students or lifelong learners," said John Bailey, director of educational technology for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Distance education is enabling school districts to offer a variety of advanced courses never before affordable or available.

"Your school may not necessarily have a Java programming expert or someone capable of teaching AP English or have a heck of a time finding a Spanish teacher," said Liz Pape, school administrator of the Virtual High School in Concord, Mass., which receives federal funding and offers online courses worldwide. "Why not pool the resources and get the best Java programming teacher out there who can teach online?"

The Florida High School, an online school funded by the state, is working with a Texas group to develop an online continuous education system for migrants who work in Texas part of the year and in Florida the rest of the year.

"It's a different world out there," said Phyllis Lentz, research and resource specialist for The Florida High School, which has had students take their courses with them to Spain, on international tennis tours and to New York for soap opera shoots. "Kids are very mobile. Now they can take their courses with them."

Keith Oelrich, president and chief executive officer of Apex Learning, which is based in Seattle and offers online Advanced Placement courses, has seen his business multiply.

In its first full year during the last school year, Apex had 1,000 students enrolled in five courses and 10,000 students in AP review courses. This fall, 5,000 are expected to enroll in 10 courses. The company also is working with states to develop their own virtual high schools. As many as a dozen such partnerships are in the works, including a recently announced deal with Michigan.

"One of the things driving the proliferation of virtual high schools across the country is the need for equity of access" to AP courses and other programs, said Oelrich. That's important, because AP courses can affect a student's chances of admission to some colleges.

Rural schools particularly have been helped by federal grants such as the Star Schools program. Funded through the U.S. Department of Education, Star Schools this year awarded $50.5 million for distance education efforts in kindergarten through 12th grade.

In Western Pennsylvania, distance education courses are not now commonplace. In Allegheny County, some schools have used the courses for special subjects, such as Japanese, but few students participated.

This fall, about 100 students will take courses through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Learning Community Network in which five school districts, the AIU and Point Park College share a few classes through video conferencing.

Distance education hasn't become as common here as in some other parts of the country, said Kevin Conner, AIU instructional media and technology services director, because the region doesn't have as great a need for it.

"We're very lucky to be in an area where there are a lot of learning opportunities within a short drive," he said.

Still, he thinks more schools here could benefit. "Our feeling is that every district has valuable resources that could be shared," he said.

In Pittsburgh Public Schools, more possibilities will open up once a high-speed fiber optic network that can carry digital video and teleconferencing is installed throughout the district. Work is beginning this school year, noted district technology director John Barry.

The most comprehensive distance learning effort in Western Pennsylvania so far is a public charter school that is a spin-off of the Midland School District in Beaver County.

The Western Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School opened last week with 250 students in kindergarten through 12th grade with a full-time distance education program.

The school received applications from about 350 students from 54 school districts in 17 Pennsylvania counties. Only six applicants were from Midland. Under a state formula, school districts pay tuition for each student who attends the charter school.

Nick Trombetta, Midland superintendent and chief administrative officer of the charter school, said the school uses resources including Internet-based courses, software, books, and lessons developed by Midland teachers.

The program will provide two certified professionals for every 50 students. Students also will receive a computer and printer for at-home use. The family must provide an adult to supervise in the home.

Many of the students are homeschoolers looking for more structure, he said. Some of the others don't attend a public school because of illness, "social problems" or other issues, he added.

Teri Burgin, a parent in Carroll Township, Washington County, has signed up her four school-age children -- grades two through 11 -- for the cyber school. Until now, she's been homeschooling her children.

This fall, her 11th-grader, Chad, will take an online college course, and the two younger students will use computer programs for reading and math enrichment purchased by the district.

"I'm excited for the chance to not be so bogged down myself with lesson plans and logs and portfolios and have a chance to work with the kids," said Burgin.

Amy Wohar, a 10th-grader who lives in California, Washington County, and has been a homeschooler, has signed up for some online courses.

"I think it will be neat," said Amy. Because Midland is a charter school, and state law provides for the students to participate in extracurricular activities in their home districts, Amy can play soccer and volleyball and participate in theater. As a homeschooler, she wasn't allowed.

Technology hurdles

Technology still isn't advanced enough to meet all of the potential of high-tech learning.

Live video on the Internet, for example, still tends to be small and choppy. Video received from satellite dishes usually isn't interactive. Video conferencing equipment that provides live two-way video can be expensive. Computer equipment may be slow, and servers can go out, making the online course inaccessible.

As to the content of the distance courses, Pape said, "It's an amazing array of the good, bad and the ugly."

Trombetta, who researched many offerings while planning the charter school, said, "I've seen some that haven't been updated in 10 years. They were using them in prisons, and you could see why. It was absolutely the least user-friendly and didn't motivate you to try any harder."

Some have software that can tell a student immediately whether an answer is right or wrong. But it might take 24 hours to get an answer from a live Internet teacher.

Another hurdle is managing schedules.

"We have not been able to get a time during the school day when all of the school districts can have their students together," said Judy Garbinski, an administrator at Community College of Beaver County where an "Excellence Academy" offers college-level courses to several high schools via video conferencing.

"Some may have 40-minute classes. Some don't start until 8, and some start at 7:30," she said.

Then there's the problem of changing traditions.

"Moving the minds and hearts is definitely the more complex process than putting the infrastructure in place," said Dede.

Other technologies

Older than many of the Internet-based courses are courses via videotape or live satellite transmission. These are typically one-way video, sometimes with two-way audio over a speaker phone.

Pennsylvania is a member of the 10-year-old program run by the Satellite Educational Resources Consortium. Pennsylvania pays $35,000 a year to be a member. In return, districts can receive staff development programs and pay tuition for high school courses, typically about $500 per student per year per course.

Last year, it reached about 1,000 students in 21 states, including 186 students in 33 Pennsylvania schools, including Allegheny Valley, Quaker Valley, Sto-Rox in Allegheny County and Avella, McGuffey, Ringgold in Washington County; Western Beaver in Beaver County; Burrell, Derry Area and New Kensington-Arnold in Westmoreland County; and Albert Gallatin in Fayette County.

One of the largest video conferencing providers in Pennsylvania is Partners in Distance Learning in Ashland, Schuykill County. The program started with six Eastern Pennsylvania school districts in 1993 and, since 1995, has been funded by a five-year, $3 million federal grant, which has helped to pay for equipment.

When it expires, the organization will become self-sustaining, raising administrative costs through training programs. It has about 325 member schools in eight states, including about 200 schools in Pennsylvania.

Some of the members use the consortium to set up live virtual field trips with museums and zoos while others offer and receive courses. Last year, 10,000 students participated.

In Allegheny County, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Learning Community Network, which started in 1996, also uses the video conferencing approach with Chartiers Valley, East Allegheny, Fox Chapel Area, McKeesport Area, Northgate, the AIU and Point Park College. Each district pays about $2,500 a month to be part of the private network.

But the increased participation in any form of distance learning still won't replace high schools as we know them, educators said.

"It's not for everyone. You have to be a real motivated student," said Lentz.

Pape added, "I think high school is a great socialization process for students. I don't see online courses as replacing high schools. I see them tremendously enhancing what students have available to them during their high school years."



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