Building a Virtual High School...click by click

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South Dakota’sRapid City Academy finds outjust what it takes to provide adiverse population of students theflexibility offered by online learning.

The Rapid City Academy is the alternativehigh school program for SouthDakota’s Rapid City Area Schools,which has an enrollment of about13,000 K-12 students, with five middle schoolsfeeding two large traditional high schools and thealternative program. A high percentage ofstudents at the academy are considered “at-risk”due to transient lifestyles, teenage parenthood,high absentee rates, low soci'economic status,and medical and/or personal challenges thatimpact their ability to succeed in the traditionalclassroom setting. Therefore,the academy strivesto provide a quality education for its students viaalternative instructional methods such as smallerstudent-teacher ratios, individualized learningplans,strategy-based learning, flexible schedules,and independent and group-led classes.

The Debut of Online Learning

During the spring of 2002,conversations among asmall group of teachers, instructional technologyspecialists, and administrators led us to attend theVirtual High School Symposium in Denver in fall2002. Conversations continued, and in summer2003, teachers and instructional technologyspecialists developed online courses for implementationthat fall. Thus began the academy’sventure into the world of online learning.

Rapid City Academy Online (rcacademyonline.org) debuted in November 2003with four teachers, 34 students, and fivecourses. Although a majority of thestudents were from the local schooldistrict, enrollment included out-of districtand out-of-country participants.Serving predominately high-school-agedstudents, Rapid City Academy Onlineprovided a new opportunity for learnerswho needed the flexibility of the onlineclasses to help meet their outside workschedules, as well as for those hoping tograduate ahead of time or those trying tocatch up with their own graduating class.Still,some were just intrigued by the idea ofattending virtual classes.

But not all participants fit the archetypeof the typical high school-aged learner. Onenon-traditional student hoped to return toschool after more than 50 years to completethe credits necessary for earning a highschool diploma. Others were alreadycarrying full course loads at the traditionalhigh schools and wanted the opportunityto take additional coursework, while somestudents decided to take a class to improve agrade they had received in the traditionalsetting.

Initial course offerings includedAmerican History 1,World Literature 1,Physiology and Anatomy, and ComputerStudies 1, while math classes were offeredthrough online curriculum from PearsonDigital Learning’s (www.pearsondigital.com) NovaNet program. The virtualhigh school is now in its fourth cycle,and hasgrown to eight teachers, 44 students (severalof whom are taking two or more onlinecourses), and 15 courses. More growth isanticipated with the start of the fifth cycle inDecember 2004. It’s time now to step backand reflect on what we have learned sinceour leap into the world of virtual education.

The Initial Experience

Students and instructors of the Rapid CityAcademy Online were asked to examinetheir online teaching and learning experiencesduring this first year. The staffcompleted a written questionnaire inwhich seven noted experiences as learnersin online master’s or doctoral classes, whileone instructor had no online experience asa student. Five of the instructors were experiencedteachers of online courses, whilethis was the first opportunity in onlineteaching for three instructors. Of the 35student respondents, 10 had participatedin at least one online class offered by theacademy in the last year, while 25 had noprevious eLearning experience.

According to the Illinois OnlineNetwork (Key Elements of an OnlineProgram, 2003, www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/overview/elements.asp),the flexibility of asynchronous learning isone of the most frequently mentionedadvantages of online learning. In thesurvey of the eight Rapid City AcademyOnline instructors, flexibility and convenienceranked as the most important advantagesto online teaching; students alsorated flexibility and convenience highly.Students in particular responded that theyappreciated the freedom of choosing whento work on classes rather than having towork on them at a specific time. It was alsointeresting to see that teachers as well asstudents were able to adjust their onlineschedules to balance life’s responsibilities.

The Illinois Online Network also foundthat asynchronous discussions in an onlinecourse allowed the learner time to thinkand reflect on presented content material.Rather than trying to formulate an answeron the spot, the learner gives more considerationto the response, which seems toresult in more engaged learning. Thus,instead of only learning facts, studentsdiscuss topics and become active participantsin the learning process. This researchwas supported in the Rapid City Academy’sexperience with its virtual high school. So,it’s no surprise that 88 percent of academyinstructors identified reflective learning,student engagement, and student-centeredinstruction as advantages of online instruction.In addition, students’ responses toindividual teacher’s requests for feedbackregarding the online education experienceindicated the positive impact of a personalconnectedness to the instructor throughthe use of e-mail, threaded discussions,andjournaling.

The online learning platform’s interactivityalso rated highly with 88 percent of theinstructors, while students in generalenjoyed using the computers and all of therelated tools, such as threaded discussionboards, e-mail, and journals. Perhaps asimportantly, many of the students wereexperienced in the use of interactive onlinetools, including electronic bulletin boards,as well as chat and instant messaging, priorto beginning their online coursework. Thesesame students also highlighted the use ofWeb sites to learn more about subjects ofinterest.

Major Concerns and Disadvantages

System requirements. Student andinstructor responses to the written questionnairesmost frequently cited computersystem requirements as a major disadvantageto online learning. In addition to therequirement of an available Internetconnection, specific software programswere recommended due to compatibilityissues with the course management platform.This platform d'es not support allInternet browsers, and pop-up blockersinterfere with the opening of additionalwindows that may be necessary for a class.At one point, students were using personale-mail accounts, and overflowing mailboxeswere frequently rejecting e-mailssent from the teachers. Fortunately,students are now issued state e-mailaddresses for use with online courses.

Limited access. Because low-incomestudents are more likely to have limitedhome Internet access (Tom Clark, VirtualSchools: Trends and Issues, WestEd, 2001,www.wested.org/online_pubs/virtualschools.pdf), Rapid City AcademyOnline students have access to computersand high-speed Internet at two open-labtutoring locations. The tutoring centers areopen four evenings each week, and arestaffed with an instructor and studenttutors. In addition, the Rapid City PublicLibrary is working in concert with theacademy to provide students with computerand Internet access.

“Students who may not normally shine within a traditionalclassroom may do better in a virtual classroom.“

Computer failures. Teachers andstudents alike expressed concern thatsystem failure is another major disadvantageof online learning. Unfortunately, thisis inevitable in the world of technology.Students especially noted system freezesand crashes that caused the loss of not onlyassignments, but also the loss of time spentcompleting the work and rebooting orrepairing computers. One student evenmentioned that the frustration ofcomputer failures was the reason acomputer should always be maintainedand its system kept up-to-date.

Interaction (or lack thereof). Lack offace-to-face interaction with students andother teachers was noted by 37 percent ofthe instructors and some of the students. Wefound that if someone is unable to meetwith a student in person,written communicationskills are vital for both the teacherand the learners. Some students need thatsense of being connected to both the teacherand their classmates;consequently,teachersmust maintain regular connection withtheir students whether via e-mail, journalresponses, discussion postings, orannouncement postings. A few teachersfound that using the phone to speak with astudent, or inviting a student to come in fora conference, helped alleviate this feeling ofisolation. Conversely,a teacher and studentboth mentioned that for some, not havingto deal with people face-to-face made thelearning easier. Students who may notnormally shine within a traditional classroommay do better in a virtual classroom.One reason is due to the nature of the onlineclassroom, which allows a student’s opinionto be presented without interruption.

Time management. As with any educationalsetting, more than a third of theteachers noted time management as aconcern. Two of the academy instructorshave part-time contracts with the schooldistrict, while the remaining are adjunctfaculty holding full-time teaching positionsin addition to their online teaching loads.Currently, teachers in the online academyare contracted for an hourly wage based onseven hours each week for a 12-week period.This becomes a problem when you considerthat the teacher is not always the one whodeveloped the online course; thus, moretime is spent working with students tocomplete the course. In addition, by theirvery nature, some types of assignmentsrequire more time to assess and evaluate.

Ensuring a Successful Online Experience

When teachers were asked to address whichfactors determined a student’s success as anonline learner, all agreed self-motivation,self-discipline,and time management weremost critical. This was supported byAndrew Zucker et al. (Virtual High School:Teaching Generation V, Teachers CollegePress, 2004) when they interviewedstudents who attended online coursesoffered in the Northeast and South in 1998-1999. Instructors can encourage thestudents to work to make the online experiencesuccessful; however, they cannot dothe work for them. Procrastination will notlead to a positive result in the virtual classroom,nor will a student’s unwillingness tocommunicate questions and comments tothe instructor. Due to the lack of an actualphysical presence in a classroom, it isimperative for students to actively engagein communication with other students andthe instructor (William Thomas, EssentialPrinciples of High-Quality Online Teaching:Guidelines for Evaluating K-12 OnlineTeachers, Southern Regional EducationBoard, 2003, www.sreb.org/programs/Ed-Tech/pubs/PDF/Essential_Principles.pdf.

Because online learning is not a traditionaleducational setting, students andinstructors need to think outside of the box.Both must employ problem-solving strategiesand flexibility when faced with new situationsand difficulties. As a result, onlinelearning provides students with the opportunityto take ownership and direct theirown learning. Such skills are necessary in theworld of education, and are essential tocreating lifelong learners (Paul Black andDylan Wiliam, “Assessment for Learning:Beyond the Black Box”pamphlet,Universityof Cambridge School of Education, 1999,arg.educ.cam.ac.uk/AssessInsides.pdf).Furthermore, the use of computers andonline learning empowers students tobecome active learners through the use ofinquiry-based learning (National Associationof State Boards of Education, AnyTime, Any Place, Any Path, Any Pace: Takingthe Lead on eLearning Policy, 2001,nasbe.org/e_Learning.html).

Teachers and students who participatedin the first year of the Rapid CityAcademy Online program have found theoverall experience positive despite theoccasional technology snags. Althoughthe instructors enjoyed the challenge ofcreating a successful learning experiencefor their students, most preferred to teachcourses they developed themselves.

The majority of Rapid City AcademyOnline courses have been developed andtaught by the same individuals; however, insome cases, new teaching staffwere assignedcourses developed by other staff members.The course platform requires continuity toassure that a student can move smoothlyfrom one course to another, and instructorsneed the ability to easily adapt or modifycourse content to better individualize thelearning. Just as importantly, teachers notedthat more training, particularly regardingpedagogy in this new learning environment,is a necessity. They also suggested that tobetter understand the online environment,one should first participate as an onlinelearner. Currently,50 percent of the instructorshave completed or are in the process ofearning advanced degrees through onlineprograms offered by various US universities.As a result, they believe this gives theminsight into online learning and the problemstheir students may encounter in thevirtual education environment.

Margaret Mead

Conclusions

There’s no doubt that online education isshowing tremendous growth. During the2004-2005 school year, some form ofonline learning was offered in 41 percent ofK-12 schools (Corey Murray, “StudyReveals trends in Ed-Tech Spending,”eSchool News, 2004). Because of thisincrease in the demand for online learningand its possible impact on geographicallyremote areas, Rapid City Academy Onlineis now looking to the state to provide directionin policy, funding, and oversightresponsibilities concerning course contentand teacher qualifications to ensuremeeting the expectations of No Child LeftBehind mandates. Critical issues that mustbe addressed include intellectual propertyrights, academic freedom, equitablecompensation, and ongoing programevaluation.

Sue Podoll is a special-education teacher incharge of the Rapid City Area Schools’ (SD)long-term suspension room. In addition toher teaching duties, Podoll is co-president ofthe Rapid City Education Association and aninstructor for Rapid City Academy Online,handling student orientation. Darcy Randleis an English and psychology teacher forRapid City Area Schools. She is the EnglishDepartment Chair for Rapid City Academy,as well as an instructor and a course developerfor Rapid City Academy Online.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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