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Computer-based classes help students graduate on time

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

A computer-based science course is a lot like the classroom, really.

“It will have you select the equipment you’ll need,” said LuAnne Kelsey, director of non-traditional programming and resources for West Aurora schools, explaining how a computer-based chemistry lab works.

“You’ll physically move the chemicals you need, and you’ll drag and drop the exact amount you need. You’ll start the Bunsen burner and set the time frame and monitor it. And you can run any number of simulations.

“Your job is to interpret the data, and you can change different variables along the way.”

Computer-based courses offer students who had a hard time passing chemistry — or economics, American literature, or any of the other core classes required for high school graduation — a chance to recoup their lost credits and graduate on time — which is one reason school districts are rolling out the high-tech courses across the Fox Valley.

A pilot program will start up this summer for East Aurora High School seniors who are just one class shy of graduating, with plans to expand this fall to more at-risk students and homebound students.

“So it’s preventative as well, preventing them from failing a course when they miss classes,” said East Aurora Assistant Superintendent Marin Gonzalez. “A teacher can tell them ‘You need to do Modules 3 and 4 while you’re gone,’ and they’ll be right on track with the class.”

In Oswego schools, roughly 70 students at risk of failing devote the school day to computer-based courses at Murphy Junior High, which is a new building in Plainfield that hasn’t yet opened for junior high enrollment.

“That whole site is devoted to credit recovery,” said John Petzke, the district’s executive director of technology, who said the computer-based courses Oswego students use are often more adaptive to a student’s individual needs than traditional classrooms.

“It’s actually a lot more geared to your own pace and then monitored by a teacher,” he said. “These courses may start at a lower level, let them experience success there and then build on that level.”

But when classes are led by a computer instead of a teacher, can they maintain the same rigorous academic standards?

School administrators say yes.

Tailored to students

“For some students it really is best to do a lot of classes on the computer,” said Erika Schlichter, director of educational services for grades 6-12 in the Kaneland School District.

Students in special situations, she said, such as illness or family and work obligations, may have a much harder time getting through courses in a traditional classroom. Students today, administrators pointed out, are also more interested in and comfortable with the high-tech courses.

But school districts also have an interest in getting students ushered through their core classes, not least among them the four-year graduation rate, which, under No Child Left Behind, plays a role in determining a district’s federal funding.

That means schools are eager to get students graduated, especially if there’s a shortcut around another semester of sitting in government class.

The program West Aurora uses, for instance, allows students to test ahead and spend time only on those concepts they may have missed the first time they took the class.

“As soon as they get past the mastery test, they’re done,” said Kelsey. “That’s whether it takes them a week or two or a month or two into the course.”

Courses can also be molded to a student’s level and learning skills — a blessing for those students who missed crucial concepts early on, but a possible crutch if not monitored.

East Aurora’s programs are all adaptive to Spanish-speakers, and PLATO, the program used at West High, can read course material aloud to students who struggle with reading on the page or screen.

State, federal interest

Online courses get a tacit stamp of approval from both the Illinois State Board of Education and the U.S. Department of Education.

The State Board of Education has backed its own kind of computer-based learning. Illinois Virtual School, funded by the state board, offers credit recovery and enrichment courses, like Advanced Placement and foreign language classes that may not be offered at individual schools. A handful of Oswego students study electives like engineering through IVS each year.

The U.S. Department of Education released a study in September in support of online courses. Researchers found that, on average, “students in online learning conditions performed modestly better that those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

But there was one caveat: the lack of studies on K-12 students. Only a handful of studies about online learning have involved grade school students, according to the Department of Education. The majority of studies looked at college-level courses and courses in the medical field, leading the Department of Education to urge caution in generalizing to younger students, who may not yet have developed the motivation or skills for self-directed learning.

Growing interest

Most school district administrators say they were working to expand online offerings for students who want to feel challenged.

Online-based Advanced Placement classes are down the line for East Aurora if the initial rollout for struggling students is successful.

That goes for West Aurora, too, after the school ramps up capacity for students who need to retake classes.

“The goal is to get more underclassmen, but right now we’re working on fifth-year seniors,” said Kelsey. “It opens up windows of opportunity we couldn’t afford otherwise.

“Down the line, we hope to be able to let them access the classes from home so students can be working on their classes at 2 o’clock in the morning for those students who learn best then.”

Administrators in Kaneland, where even middle school students are taking online courses to increase their math proficiency to get bumped into the honors track, have also increased their efforts. Online courses there, said Schlichter, have been around “for years,” and were successful enough for the district to upgrade to newer, more adaptive programs two years ago.

So while school districts seem to agree that beakers and Bunsen burners may not be essential for every student to learn, the growing concern is no longer whether online learning can work, but how much of a good thing is too much.

For most districts, that means limiting the number of courses that can be made up through the program. At West High, that’s three hours a day to avoid burnout.

For Oswego, where students in the alternative program may take all their day’s courses in front of a computer screen, teachers pull students away from the screen to digest all that knowledge and assess the student’s progress and their understanding of the material.

“At some point, to really reach a deeper understanding, they need to be able to discuss all that new information,” said Petzke. “We are all social creatures, and learning is no different.”

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