Online courses alternative to traditional classroom

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

When the school year neared its conclusion at Portales High School in May, administrators and teachers had a wood shop with sheet rock walls and a mission.

Three months later, that mission is nearing its beginning. The sheet rock is still underneath, but the wood shop is now home to about 70 computers and a few offices for teachers, all elements in a forum that may soon be a standard option in high schools across the country.

The building, which is on the campus of PHS, is the central area for the school’s online courses — a new
program administrators hope will help provide core courses for students whose schedules don’t align with an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day.

Portales High has about 70 enrolled for at least one online course, which Technology Director Mike Rackler said translates to roughly 10 percent of the school population. Rackler said the standard school day is still a viable learning experience for 75 to 80 percent of students, and the online courses are a way to reach the others.

“There was a time, honestly, in education, where those who dropped out just dropped out,” Rackler said. “Now, we’re being held more accountable for every student, and that philosophy of sitting in the classroom eight hours a day doesn’t work for 15 to 20 percent. So you have to come up with alternatives.”

The alternative is new to PHS, but not to other high schools across the country. It’s certainly not new to universities and community colleges, which have proven that proper planning from students and teachers can make online courses work. Eastern New Mexico University is offering 54 classes online this fall, while Clovis Community College officials estimate more than 50 of their classes can be taken over the Internet.

Increased use of the Internet has led many schools to create ways for students to handle business with a school online. Clovis Community College discontinued the process of mailing grades because it found most can just check them online instead.

The most visible part of the digital education age would likely be online courses.

“We started out (about five years ago) piloting 10 classes,” said Eleonore Isham, CCC’s vice president for information and educational technology. “Those classes were the first ones to fill. Every semester progressively since then we’ve added online courses and they’re the first ones to fill up.”

At first, CCC officials expected that online courses would bring in students from across the country. They found that their online students were overwhelmingly residents of the Clovis area who didn’t want to spend time in classrooms and commuting.

“If a student would come to campus, they would drive, be in class (once a week) from 6 to 9:15 p.m.,” said Isham, who has taught a class on software application. “In order to take the online class, they don’t have to drive or make arrangements.”

Instead, a student’s classroom can be in any room of their home and other household tasks can be done simultaneously. Isham added, however, that online courses have their own inherent challenges that an on-campus class doesn’t have. Instead of listening to a lecture, the student is required to find particular information.

“They really have to be disciplined in looking at the material,” Isham said. “It’s really harder to skimp on the time. It is time-consuming for the students, but they prefer that because they can do that at 10 at night or on the weekend.”

One of the programs used by most schools in the area is called WebCT. The program, used by CCC and ENMU and set to be used by PHS, is in place in nearly 70 countries, according to the company Web site.

Tom Brown, an assistant professor of computer science at ENMU, said WebCT is used by many teachers as an additional component to on-campus classes.

“There are some courses which are hosted online through WebCT,” Brown said, “but I think a lot of people use it to give students access to information for classes (being taught on campus).”

Students can use the course by logging on to an online course domain managed by ENMU. What is available on the site depends largely on the teachers, Brown said. Some teachers may only include a syllabus, while other teachers post reading material, assignments and discussion questions for an online discussion board included on the class site.

In these cases, Brown stressed the site is no substitute for classroom attendance.

“Students still have to be in class,” Brown said. “If they’re not in class, they tend to not do well. For me, it gives me a way to give them access to stuff online after hours.”

The Wayland Baptist University campus at Clovis has online courses, but interim dean Gary Mitchell said those are usually offered through the main campus in Plainview, Texas. Mitchell, who has taught at WBU since 1998, said that he has never taught an online course himself but has seen the option increase in popularity.

“It’s convenient,” Mitchell said. “(Students) can do things according to their time schedule. In some cases, it’s more difficult because they have more wrifitng or more computer work.”

A feature that combines the formats are what Mitchell called hybrid classes. Most of the lessons are given online, but the students will meet on campus four to five times during the year.

Traditional schooling, combined with non-traditional hours, gives online learning much of its appeal. That was the case for the spouses of both PHS Principal Melvin Nusser and State Rep. Keith Gardner, R-Roswell.

Nusser said about three years ago, he was talking with some of his old high school classmates and found one was working with an online school with about 100 students.

“At the same time, my wife Karen was getting her educational diagnostician license at Texas Tech and she had an online course,” Nusser said. “I thought this was something that had the possibility of creating some flexibility in scheduling.”

Conversations continued over the years, and the PHS administrators were able to get some help from Gardner, who was set to enter his first state Legislature. Gardner had first seen online classes at work when his wife was trying to earn a master’s degree. He at first thought the concept was “hokey,” but gained more respect for it.

“She was trying to hold a full-time job. We have four kids,” Gardner said. “She was able to do it around her schedule, as opposed to working around their schedule.”

Gardner worked in the Legislature to add $50,000 in the state budget for the program, and Portales school officials went to Odyssey Charter School, an alternative school for the Clark County district in Las Vegas, Nev.

“It was interesting to see the differences in the kids involved,” Nusser said. “Some of them wanted to accelerate and graduate early, and some absolutely hated school and knew this was the least amount of seat time they could put in and still earn a high school diploma.”

No doubt those same types of students exist in eastern New Mexico, and so far students have been receptive. Rackler said there were 65 students interested in taking online classes, and each student was required to bring a parent for a meeting with Assistant Principal Mark McAfee. All 65 signed up for the classes, Rackler said.

There are a pair of rooms with computers. The main room will be a homeroom with 30 laptops available. As part of the online classes, students are required to have a two-hour homeroom session for a minimum of four weeks from Monday through Thursday at the start of the semester. If a student can keep up with the workload, there are few requirements for additional homeroom time. However, teachers can still schedule assignments and tests (including standardized tests) to be done on campus.

Another room stocks 40 computers for what Rackler called a credit recovery room. The area will allow children who fail a semester in a course receive a second chance to learn online without waiting a year for the next semester.

“It also, we hope, will eliminate the need for summer school,” Rackler said. “If they fall behind, we can get them a credit recovery program.”

The school is starting off small, with four core courses (math, English, social studies and science). Administrators at PHS know it’s a risk, but they think the potential success greatly outweighs the potential failure.

“What have we got to lose?” Nusser said. “We’ve recovered some kids who have been dropped out of school for a year-and-a-half already. They’re a dropout already. If they’re not successful in the program, they’re still a dropout. It’s worth a chance.”

Even though technology is sure to change dramatically over the next few years, school officials are optimistic that each generation of students will pick up the concepts faster.

“Maybe in the beginning, you would have to do a lot more selling,” Isham said. “We find now because technology is such an integral part of daily life that now we’re getting pulled from the other end. We’re having faculty and staff coming to us.”