Online classes boom, so state ranks high

February 15, 2009
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LANSING — Lorri MacDonald leads 40 students in two introductory forensic science classes. As with any high school course, her students participate in class discussions, complete lessons and do homework.

But MacDonald’s students won’t get into trouble for talking, chewing gum or coming to class in pajamas: Their work is done in a virtual classroom.

Students from Detour to Grand Rapids meet online at the Michigan Virtual School to follow lessons and complete assignments, interacting with classmates and instructors through e-mail and online discussion rooms.

MacDonald started teaching online three years ago and was just named Michigan Virtual School’s teacher of the year. Although she has more than 20 years of experience in traditional classrooms, MacDonald said she enjoys online classes because they allow students instant access to photos, information and other material during lessons.

“My favorite thing about online teaching is that you can really have a ‘show-and-tell’ experience with students,” said MacDonald, who is also an assistant professor in science education and educational research methods at the University of Detroit Mercy.

“In a normal classroom, you have to stop what you’re doing to find a photo or flip to a page in a book. Online, students already have access to that information through links or photos or video that’s already embedded in the lesson.”

Michigan has gained national attention as the first state to make online learning a requirement for high school graduation, and was recently recognized for growth in online learning by the California-based Center for Digital Education, a national research and advisory group for K-12 and higher education technology.

Programs like the Michigan Virtual School, Michigan LearnPort and the graduation requirement helped the state rise in online rankings, second only to Florida, said center Director Marina Leight of Folsom, California.

“Michigan has provided significant leadership for the rest of the nation in online learning and is looked to as a pioneer in the field,” she said.

The rankings reflect the growth of the Michigan Virtual School, a state-founded nonprofit corporation, which provides more than 45,000 online courses to 500 schools in the state, according to Jamey Fitzpatrick, the school’s chief executive officer. Most high schools pay for their students to take online classes, which count for credit like traditional ones, he said.

“What’s encouraging is that we can offer classes students wouldn’t normally have access to,” Fitzpatrick said. “For example, if someone wanted to take Mandarin Chinese, we could set them up with an online program connecting them with an instructor from the Confucius Institute at Michigan State University.”

Approximately one million students are enrolled in online classes nationally, according to Fitzpatrick, who also said he hopes to make online learning as prevalent as classroom learning.

“We want students to encounter a world that embraces technology,” he said. “Whether pupils can’t attend school due to schedule conflicts, health reasons, or their district doesn’t offer summer classes, online courses give people a chance to learn new skill sets in a different environment.”

Although online education continues to expand, Michigan Education Association President Iris Salters said it’s often difficult for public schools to keep up with the latest technological innovations.

“It’s often difficult financially for schools to keep up with technology,” she said. “For example, districts built complex wiring systems for their school computers, and then we changed to wireless Internet. It wasn’t that the money was wasted; it’s just that they thought they were preparing for a different future.”

Though critics of online learning argue that it isn’t as personal as face-to-face instruction, both McDonald and Fitzpatrick said teachers can tailor instruction to their students even if it’s done virtually.

“Some students simply want to have their homework graded and be on their way, but others prefer individual attention,” MacDonald said. “Really, it’s the same as a regular classroom. I still keep in touch with many of my former students via e-mail.”

Fitzpatrick said teachers can easily develop individualized relationships with students online.

“It’s important to have face-to-face learning, but you can get a lot from an online course,” he said. “So much information can be sent through the Internet that students and teachers can develop a very personal relationship, even if they’re hundreds of miles apart.”

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