Where will virtual schools end up?


October 11th, 2011

Lincoln, NE – Like other states, Nebraska is teaching more students in settings other than traditional brick and mortar schools. But how far can this trend go, and who will pay for it?

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Those were among the questions when members of the Legislature’s Education Committee gathered this week in a Capitol hearing room. They were trying to get up to speed on what their study resolution called education through “electronic means.”

Teacher Carolyn Hovermale of the Independent Study High School checks work a student has submitted online from Japan against the textbook. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

“What are we doing to think new models? New ways of doing stuff?” asked Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, a former high school chemistry, physics and math teacher.

“Well, I think there are lots of people out there representing the new ways. You’re kind of representing the day and age when the teacher was the font of all knowledge,” replied Brian Halstead of the state Department of Education.

“Yes. And I was,” said Haar, as the room erupted in laughter.

But then Halstead reached for his smart phone.

“The reality is, if I pull this out of my pocket, I can find everything you knew and were trying to teach me in less than 10 seconds,” he said. Haar good-naturedly agreed that was probably right.

As technology evolves, the state is seeking the right balance between traditional schools and new methods.

One track is electronically connecting schools that offer particular courses – maybe advanced math, or a foreign language – to others that lack them. Gordon Roethemeyer, executive director for distance education of the Educational Service Unit coordinating council, said that last year, more than 400 courses were exchanged like that, using methods including real-time video conferencing.

Roethmeyer acknowledged startup costs for a videoconferencing system can be a hurdle.

But “we found that the return on investment is such that schools find that they can pay for a $15,000 video conferencing system really over one year through the cost savings that would be realized where they’re sharing a teacher with another school, (and) perhaps tuition generated if that’s part of the agreement,” he said.

Guidance counselor Dawn Erickson helps Brianna Millison with her online etiquette course at Wheeler Central High School. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The process has also been helped by a 2006 law that offers lottery money to help pay for the systems.

Virtual education is also expanding online. In a sense, this is nothing new. The University of Nebraska- Lincoln’s Independent Study High School has been operating since the 1920s, offering courses first by mail, and more recently, online.

Most of its students are from outside Nebraska – including people in all 50 states and more than 100 countries who want an American diploma, or people whose schedules haven’t permitted a traditional high school education, like entertainer Britney Spears in her younger years. But 11 percent of its course enrollments are from Nebraska – 2,800 in the last two years.

Now, the high school is involved in a virtual partnership, testing demand for online courses for Nebraska students through a pilot program offering them for free. High School Director Barbara Wolf Shousha said that in general, Nebraska schools do a good job of meeting students’ needs on their own. But, she added, “There are, however, always those situations where there isn’t a match – where there’s a very high-performing student who desires curriculum options that the school doesn’t have, or alternative students that aren’t performing well because of the emotional noise of a high school classroom. And they are better suited for the online, individual instruction.”

This year, instead of charging students or schools, the University offered 50 free courses from the Independent Study High School. It received 74 applications, and decided to accept all of them.

Among them was one from Wheeler Central High School in Bartlett, a small town about 50 miles west of Norfolk. On a recent morning, guidance counselor Dawn Erickson was giving student Brianna Millison some one-on-one help with an online course in etiquette, to supplement her family and consumer science class.

“If you were traveling along, if you come to a door, and you’re walking with someone else, like you and I are walking into a building, who should hold the door open?” Erickson asked.

“Me,” Brianna answered, and Erickson asked why.

“So the other person goes through, and being polite and stuff,” came the reply.

Erickson isn’t considered the teacher of the course – she’s the proctor, watching, for example, when Brianna takes tests online. She said a small school like Wheeler Central, which typically has a graduating class of about a dozen students, uses online courses for electives – whether it’s etiquette or business.

“We look for ways we can add to what we have,” she said. “Aside from hiring a teacher in that endorsed area, this is the easiest thing I can find – is to go online and find an online class. And when you find it for free, you don’t pass it up.”

Cost is a key consideration. Independent Study High School Director Shousha cited figures showing that when Montana started offering free online courses last fall, the number of students enrolled rose from slightly more than 100 to about 1,500.

Of course, the courses in Nebraska’s pilot program aren’t really free. For now, the University of Nebraska is absorbing the cost of the 74 “free” offerings.

But University President J.B. Milliken told the Education Committee that raises a question if the state wants to provide wide-ranging educational choices to Nebraska students no matter where they live.

“What means does the state need to provide, to provide this opportunity as part of its educational system?” he asked. “It can’t be done, it can’t be continued indefinitely, the way this pilot program is.

“It seems to me an unsatisfactory solution for parents and students to pay for the opportunity themselves,” he added.

Education Committee Chairman Sen. Greg Adams said the answer to that question lies down the road. Meanwhile, he said, the Legislature needs to make sure schools have access to new technology, keep on top of developments, and see if more needs to be done.

By way of full disclosure, NET is a member of the Nebraska Virtual Partnership, providing a digital library for the effort.

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