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Blended Learning | Feature

A Hybrid Approach to Education

A Las Vegas charter school is taking the concept of home schooling to a new level with the help of technology.

The people at Odyssey Charter Schools would prefer that their institution be known as a "classroom without walls," rather than just another alternative for parents who are disenchanted with the traditional school system. And while the Las Vegas K-12 school initially grew out of a need for a hybrid between those traditional schools and home schooling, Michele Robinson, superintendent, said it has since blossomed into a viable option for a large swath of students.

"We shy away from calling this 'home schooling' because Odyssey is a public school," said Robinson, who acknowledged the fact that the school fills a void that often opens up when students are pulled from traditional classrooms in favor of home schooling. "We knew there was a large population of parents who were looking for alternatives, but who didn't have the experience, knowledge or resources to [home school]. We wanted to reach that population."

Odyssey was founded by a school administrator who had worked for the Clark County School District for more than 30 years. Bent on getting parents more involved with their children's educations, Vee Wilson developed a school that blended traditional classroom learning with technology, and that allowed parents to "become more intimately involved with their students' educations," said Robinson.

When Nevada passed its charter schools law in 1997, the action paved the way for Wilson to develop "a unique school concept that combined technology with distance education and face-to-face instruction," said Robinson. The school opened in 1999 and found K-8 students doing all of their schoolwork in their own homes, assisted by in-person visits by the institution's instructors. High school classes were added a few years later and necessitated a different instructional arrangement.

"We couldn't send five different teachers to every student's home," said Robinson. To solve the problem, Odyssey set up a schedule whereby students would visit campus once a week for a four-hour stint for face-to-face instruction. A similar setup is also used for the school's eighth-grade transition program, according to Robinson, who said students expand their on-campus time past the four hours per week as needed.

The school's 32,000-square-foot physical location comprises two buildings that house high school and K-8 classrooms, along with science labs, intervention labs and "spaces where teachers and students can work on remedial studies," said Robinson. Another section of the building houses all of the school's special education facilities, with additional space for ancillary services.

Since Odyssey's inception, technology has played a major role in all aspects of the school's administration and instruction. With about 1,400 students, the institution's 62 teachers live by the philosophy that, "technology changes so fast, and if we're doing the same thing two years in the future that we are doing right now, then we have fallen behind," said Robinson. "We really try to stay ahead of the technology curve, and we put a lot of effort into figuring out how we can utilize it to better serve our students."

Odyssey's teachers are particularly fond of Moodle, a free and open source e-learning software platform. Up until 2009, the school used a proprietary, commercial platform that wasn't meeting expectations. "We like Moodle because it gives us so much flexibility, both in terms of being able to host it ourselves," said Robinson, "and for our communications and data warehousing."

Another popular technology tool used by Odyssey's teachers is a Web-based program designed specifically for the school by a Utah-based software developer. The program is employed by teachers when they are working at their students' homes, and serves as an online grade book, attendance keeper and parent-reporting tool. Accessible online via a password-protected site, the program allows parents to view their children's progress, communicate with teachers and stay on top of new developments.

Odyssey's administrative staff utilizes another proprietary system--this one designed to assign the school's 700-plus K-8 students to their appropriate teachers by zip code. Early on, Robinson said the task was handled manually, and took a week to complete. Using a computer program, that time frame has been narrowed down to three days. "The program allows us to populate a teacher's roster electronically," said Robinson. "It's been a great time-saver for us."

Odyssey's physical location is also outfitted with the latest technology trappings, including campus-wide WiFi, videoconferencing equipment, desktops, laptops and Promethean interactive whiteboards (the latter of which were added in 2010). Robinson said she and her staff are always on the lookout for new tools to investigate, while keeping an eye out for any existing technology equipment that needs to be repaired or replaced.

"One of the luxuries of being a charter school is that we do have the funding to invest in new technology, and replace anything that's outdated," said Robinson. One project she said she's hoping will come to fruition soon, for example, is an automated attendance system that provides Odyssey with an easier way to comply with Nevada's strict reporting requirements, and that is accepted by state regulators.

"It's a challenge we're always dealing with: how do you report attendance for a distance education program?" Robinson explained, adding that while the state has been good about working with distance education schools to resolve the issue, regulations don't currently allow for electronic reporting and tracking of such data. "This has pushed us back to the pen and paper, but we're hopeful that we can come up with a technology-based solution that works for everyone."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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