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Rural schools look to online courses

Posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Alaska educators hope new online courses will help students, especially in small rural schools, meet state standards and be prepared for college. The courses also will help schools obey new federal requirements to use highly qualified teachers.

Alaska Online, a consortium of nine school districts, has been offering a pilot program of 21 courses for high school students for a year and will start officially this fall.

The Juneau School District is not participating.

"It doesn't match our needs at this point," Superintendent Peggy Cowan said.

Alaska teachers developed most of the courses, many of which are English and math. Alaska Online officials said the students will be enrolled in regular schools, but need courses that aren't offered locally or don't fit into their class schedule.

"Our main focus and purpose have been to provide distance education service to small rural schools," said project director Michael Opp.

The school in Tenakee Springs, 45 miles southwest of Juneau, has 12 students in grades kindergarten through 12 and one teacher.

"We really look to have some advanced-placement opportunities throughout the district and just to help us meet the standards as outlined by the state," said Connie A. Newman, superintendent of the four-site Chatham School District, which stretches over 32,000 square miles.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to use teachers who can show they're highly qualified to teach their subject.

But about 240 of Alaska's roughly 300 high schools have fewer than 100 students - often many fewer. Teachers have to be generalists and aren't necessarily qualified to teach subjects such as algebra II, calculus or advanced-placement English, superintendents said.

"We're a series of small high schools," with enrollments ranging from five to 25, said Steve Atwater, superintendent of the Lake & Peninsula School District east of Bristol Bay. "Once the kids get into the upper level, we don't do a good job. Our teachers are generalists."

In the Kenai Peninsula School District, which has 43 schools spread over 26,000 square miles, students from small and large schools have taken online courses from the district's home school program and other sources in recent years, said Superintendent Donna Peterson.

Sometimes students in large schools can't fit a classroom course into their schedule, so they take it by computer, she said.

Although Peterson's district has developed 10 online courses on its own, it joined Alaska Online to share in broader offerings. It's expensive and time-consuming to develop online courses, Opp said.

"We wanted more opportunities for our kids," Peterson said. "If you don't have to reinvent the wheel, it's a better deal for us."

School districts that participate in Alaska Online are required to provide a mentor for the student. Alaska Online will provide a certified teacher for each course. The mentor's job is to monitor the student's progress daily and motivate him or her.

Atwater, some of whose district's students have taken online courses in the past four years, said the hard part is keeping students motivated. That will be particularly true when online courses serve a broader range of students, not just the college-bound, he said.

The upside is that students who learn to motivate themselves will be better prepared for the way college courses are taught. Lake & Peninsula sends a quarter of its graduates on to college, but few get a degree, Atwater said.

Online learning "gives them a little taste of independent learning, which is what college is all about," he said.

Online learning also teaches students how to use computers, which is a useful skill, he said.

But Atwater, whose district is 90 percent to 95 percent Native, is concerned that online courses may not match his students' learning style. They prefer to be shown things, rather than read about them, and they want to see a local application for the knowledge.

"That's my fear - that this type of learning will really alienate a portion of our kids," Atwater said.

Opp, the project director, is aware that not everyone wants to read on a screen. He expects students will talk to the teacher and other students over the computer.



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