March 20, 2009 in City

Online school adjusts course

Spokane program cracks down on virtual slackers
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Lewis and Clark High School senior Lindsay Bekken checks in on her online photography class recently at her South Hill home.
(Full-size photo)

Of the students who enrolled in online classes at Spokane Virtual Learning last semester, nearly half didn’t finish, dropped the course and returned to the regular classroom, or failed.

The statistics were alarming enough to send Spokane Public Schools, which operates SVL using district teachers and curriculum, into action to try to improve the program’s success rate.

Now, students who slack off in the virtual classroom are likely to get a visit from a teacher or counselor, after an electronic monitoring system was put in place to flag kids who aren’t logging in.

“The whole thing is so new. We are learning as we go,” said Kristin Whiteaker, director of SVL and instructional technology for Spokane Public Schools.

Most SVL students attend Spokane schools, although some come from other districts.

According to state education officials, 14,266 secondary students are enrolled in one or more online courses for credit. Of those, 3,827 take all of their courses online.

As online programs continue to grow in popularity, critics voice concern about the loss of social interaction when students sit in front of computer screens instead of in regular classrooms. In addition, they say, not all online classes provide good, rigorous coursework.

The state Senate last week approved a bill that would require online course providers to seek approval through the state. The bill, awaiting House approval, would limit class sizes for online courses, set teacher qualification standards, and require school districts to develop policies for student access to online programs.

“Online education is not the easy way out,” said Whiteaker. She said Spokane’s program is considered the “Nordstrom” of online schools in Washington, known for its curriculum closely aligned to state standards.

“It’s the same curriculum they are going to get in the classroom in one of our schools,” Whiteaker said. “It’s just in a different format.”

According to research by the North American Council for Online Learning, 42 states have supplemental online and full-time programs for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Spokane’s program is considered supplemental: Students attend regular school and may take one or two classes online. Currently, it only serves students in grades 7 through 12. The students enrolled usually don’t pay a fee – their school district does.

In some cases, companies partner with school districts to provide full-time online instruction to students, many of whom are home-schooled.

The Washington Virtual Academy, sponsored by the Steilacoom Historical School District south of Tacoma, is one such online school. The district sponsors the academy, and a for-profit company called K-12 Inc. provides online curricula. There is a similar program in Idaho, called the Idaho Virtual Academy.

Officials from both groups said they could not provide details on how students are performing but said their programs are closely aligned to state requirements.

“We are a fully accredited charter school and a public school,” said Heidi Higgins, of the Idaho Virtual Academy, which has 2,500 students statewide, including about 350 from Kootenai County. About 23 percent of students who started with the program this year dropped out, she said.

In addition to core classes in English and math, Spokane’s SVL also offers electives such as digital photography, graphic design and physical fitness.

Of the 468 students who completed courses fall semester, 244 passed with a D or higher, 89 received a failing grade, and 96 dropped the course and likely returned to regular coursework, district officials reported.

SVL seems to cater to two types of students: high achievers looking to boost their class load and free up time in their schedule, and those who are struggling to fulfill graduation requirements. Those students may have already had multiple failures and may fail again in the online setting.

“It’s a great opportunity for those kids who want to go back and do some remedial work,” said Keith Browning, a guidance counselor at Mead High School.

Mead doesn’t have its own online program, so his students use SVL and other online programs.

“The pitfalls are that if you are not real good about checking in and kind of staying on track in terms of deadlines … those (online) classes can kind of bite them in the end.”

Chloe Rambo, a sophomore at the 42-student Oakesdale High School in Whitman County, took an online journalism class through SVL last semester. She is currently enrolled in “Eastern-Western Thought” from Virtual High School, a for-profit online school in Massachusetts.

She said in a small school like hers, online courses help provide course opportunities otherwise not available.

“It takes a certain kind of student,” Rambo said. “If you need the closeness of a teacher and that relationship in the classroom, it could be difficult.”

Contact Sara Leaming at sarale@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5533.


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