At Chenango Forks High School in upstate New York, senior Johnny Chestnut spends his seventh period drawing and doodling in an elective cartooning art class, along with sophomore Christopher Lake. The only difference? Lake sketches and scribbles approximately 20 miles away in a classroom at Harpursville Central School in Harpursville, NY.
The two students listen to the same lectures presented by the same instructor, work on identical assignments, field questions and openly exchange perspectives—all of which is made possible by multiple video cameras that are broadcasting live between the various classrooms.
“It usually makes for some very interesting discussion,” points out Keith A. Rosko, who teaches the course at Chenango Forks High School.
Welcome to the wonderful world of distance learning, where teachers and students interact from districts, counties or even states away. From delivering advanced placement courses to gifted students in rural areas, to enabling schools to offer specialized courses not otherwise available, distance learning is rapidly closing the gap on access to multifaceted educational opportunities.
In fact, one-third of the nation’s public school districts enrolled an estimated 328,000 students in distance learning courses in 2002-2003, according to a study released in March by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). Educators expect that the number will only continue to rise.
“Anytime that we can use technology—not just for technology’s sake, but to expand more rigorous and hard-to-find course offerings—it’s a tremendous benefit,” says Susan Patrick, director of the department’s Office of Educational Technology. “Technology gives us the chance to collaborate with people who aren’t necessarily our neighbors.”
Providing More Options
Not surprisingly, a greater proportion of schools in rural districts rely on distance learning, because virtual classrooms are fundamental to delivering specialized or college-level classes to their students. “In these instances, distance learning might be their only option,” Patrick points out, noting that more than three-fourths of all online courses for public school students are offered at the high school level.
Regardless of a district’s population density, distance learning can enable students to register for classes that fail to make the grade at their own school, often due to the lack of a qualified instructor, insufficient enrollment or lack of available classroom space. These factors contributed to the introduction of Rosko’s distance learning class eight years ago.
“If we had only four kids interested in a particular course, then we realistically couldn’t offer it,” explains Rosko, whose current cartooning class encompasses 20 students from three different high schools.
“Distance learning is great because we can share the wealth of a good teacher,” says 16-year-old Lake, who enjoys art and cartooning as a hobby.
“Being in a distance learning environment shows that people are willing to work hard and get the job done even though their supervision comes from a man talking to them on TV,” Chestnut adds.
As that aforementioned man who lectures via the airwaves, Rosko credits the virtual classroom with being conducive to a high-quality learning experience for his students.
“Kids pay attention when you’re teaching on TV,” he notes. “I can say something on camera and all of a sudden, it’s absolutely enrapturing to them, whereas in a normal classroom, their eyes would be glazing over.”
Additionally, Rosko reports that the students benefit tremendously from the course’s access to cutting-edge technology, including video cameras, multiple monitors, microphones on each desk and various high-tech projection devices. With the flip of a button, Rosko can switch instantaneously between classrooms at Chenango Forks, Harpursville and Deposit Middle-Senior High School, the third high school that participates in his course. The instructor can also go online, project slides and still images, and show video simultaneously at all three locations.
“Our classroom is unlike any other in the building,” Rosko enthuses. “It’s filled with all of this cool technology. We can do some pretty wild things.”
A World of Possibilities
When it comes to facilitating distance learning, two-way interactive video is the mode of delivery most often used, according to the NCES report, followed by Internet courses using asynchronous computer-based instruction and those using synchronous or “real-time” computer-based courses. “The value of videoconferencing is that you close the distance between student and teacher, and you more closely follow the structure of a traditional classroom,” notes Patrick of the Office of Educational Technology.
Despite the many benefits of videoconferencing, Patrick supports the growing shift toward more Internet-based courses, in which students work at their own pace. This approach allows technology to be customized to best meet each student’s particular needs and learning styles. For example, a student struggling with fractions could make up the specific module rather than having to retake the entire math class.
“This is really where we need to go—personalizing and customizing the instruction based on the student’s needs,” says Patrick.
Another advantage to distance learning is the ability to expose students to courses that are conceptually and philosophically different from what they may otherwise encounter, a factor that appeals to Rosko in his art class.
“Some students have a more applied art, practical base, while others have a more fine art approach,” he explains. “The kids get to interact with students from other school districts and see all these different skills, opening up a world of possibilities.”
The outlook on distance learning is positive. Patrick of the Office of Educational Technology predicts that online education will continue to grow at a rapid clip, a belief underscored by the NCES survey, with 72 percent of districts reporting plans to expand their current programs. However, those same districts also cited course development and purchasing costs as the primary deterrent to their ability to increase their virtual classrooms.
“Cost will always be a challenge,” Patrick acknowledges. “But when we see the types of benefits in distance learning, there is a huge value to that. Clearly, high-quality online distance courses aren’t free. You need high-quality teachers and rigorous content to make it valuable.”
That sentiment is echoed by Rosko, who reports that his own level of instruction has been stretched by the ever-present technologies that facilitate his distance learning course.
“It’s taken my teaching up a notch,” he says. “It gets me out of my regular routine and keeps me on my toes. I’ve found it to be tremendously rewarding.”
POPULAR TECH TOOLS
According to a survey of public school districts, the most popular technologies used to deliver distance education classes during the 2002-2003 school year were:
35%— Internet courses using asynchronous computer-based instruction
9%— Internet courses using synchronous computer-based instruction
49% — Two-way interactive video
7%— One-way prerecorded video
1% — Other technologies
Note: Total exceeds 100 percent. Some districts used different types of technology as their primary mode of delivery for different distance education courses.
Source: U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics. Report covers the 2002-2003 school year.
ADVANCING BY DEGREES
Distance learning isn’t just for K-12 students. Aspiring teachers and those who wish to obtain advanced degrees also find the online forum a flexible and beneficial solution.
“Many people have a career and a family and can’t go back to school full time for three or four years,” points out Dr. Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University (WGU), a regionally accredited online university founded and supported by 19 state governors. Offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, business and information technology, the university’s Teacher’s College has enrolled approximately 2,500 students spanning all 50 states during the past two years.
“Online degrees are becoming more popular,” notes Mendenhall, “but there has been some pushback from traditional universities that students are just ‘clicking through’ and not really learning anything.”
Not so at WGU’s Teacher’s College. Now entering its third year, the program grants degrees based completely on competencies. Rather than plow through a list of required courses, students must demonstrate their skills and comprehension through a series of assessments designed to measure their knowledge of a particular field of study. The university works closely with a national assessment council to measure the defined competencies, which are derived from state and national standards, as well as teaching exams. This approach not only allows for extensive personalization, but often enables prospective teachers to graduate and become licensed more quickly.
WGU students are paired with a faculty member with whom they interact on a regular basis. Mentors work with students to formulate a personalized academic action plan that builds on what each participant already knows, since many are currently in the teaching field. So WGU students often can accelerate their educational process based on the competencies they already possess, while still juggling the demands of school, work and family.
Maria Premont, of Sugar Land, Texas, found this flexibility instrumental in her ability to attain a teaching degree through WGU’s online program. “This schooling option gave me the opportunity to realize my dream of becoming a teacher,” says Premont, 37, the mother of 9- and 12-year-old girls. “All of this [came about] with minimal interruption to my family life.”
Premont, who entered WGU in February of 2004 and graduated in April 2005, was able to apply her previous experience as an elementary school educational aide to her academic action plan. Now, the recent grad is busy interviewing for teaching positions.
The university’s online forum—which includes learning communities and chat rooms, instant messaging, message boards, e-mail, and online and offline learning resources such as videos—is supported by 12 servers hosted at a first-tier secure facility. Activity levels vary throughout the day, according to Michael Robinson, WGU’s chief technology officer, but the system generally hosts anywhere from 200 to 600 concurrent users.
Upon graduation from the online university, students are required to take state teaching or ETS exams, on which recent grads have fared well, notes Mendenhall. Although acknowledging that the sample size is still relatively small, he reports that, on average, WGU graduates are scoring 15 percent higher on these exams than their counterparts.
Melissa B. Tamberg owns a marketing company that focuses on the IT and power industries.