Tap into online options to expand educational opportunities

While e-learning and distance education programs for students occur mostly in public and private high schools across the state, teaching the fundamentals of online learning begins much earlier.

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Cathy Downs (Carolina Parent contributing writer)

The idea of earning a degree or taking a course without classroom experience didn’t necessarily sound legitimate in the days of mail-order correspondence courses. But current technology makes e-learning and distance learning fun and acceptable. Students embrace these new learning tools and navigate them with amazing ease.

While e-learning and distance education programs for students occur mostly in public and private high schools across the state, teaching the fundamentals of online learning begins much earlier. By the time many children reach kindergarten, they have already been exposed to computers to some degree in preschools or homes.

Some schools incorporate online learning with traditional classroom experiences. For example, Durham Academy uses an online learning tool called Moodle, says Michelle Gutierrez, the computer teacher and technology coordinator for the lower grades and the parent of a fourth-grade student at the school.

“We have courses online that kids do with the teacher,” Gutierrez says.

A primary lesson for students who use Moodle is the difference between chatting with a friend and contributing to online discussions – using their academic voice, as Gutierrez describes it.

The school’s online environment provides students with opportunities to practice keyboarding or math facts, check their spelling words or send a message to a friend.

“Our goal is to teach students to be anytime learners,” she says, noting the environment empowers students and teaches them to be in control of their own learning.

“This online learning has given my daughter and other children the power to problem-solve. It’s a very positive thing,” she says.

North Carolina offers high school students two great options for e-learning: the N.C. Virtual Public School (NCVPS) and Learn and Earn Online. NCVPS offers high school-level courses for high school credit, whereas Learn and Earn Online allows high school students to take college-level courses online and earn both high school and college credits.

NCVPS was created when three state Department of Public Instruction programs consolidated and reorganized, says John Brim, assistant director of NCVPS and chief operations officer of Learn and Earn Online. Brim’s office has a charge from the legislature to create virtual learning programs for high school, middle school and elementary school students.

“We’re doing a middle school pilot program and will offer it in the future,” Brim says, noting the high school program began in summer of 2007.

Once the middle school program is up and running, he says his office plans to start a pilot program for elementary grades.

Brim says there are three reasons parents and students may want to consider distance learning:

  • The student may live in an area of the state where the local school system doesn’t offer certain courses, such as Latin or AP Physics.
  • It allows students to take courses they wouldn’t otherwise be able to take. For instance, distance learning helps solve scheduling problems if a student is interested in a course but his class schedule doesn’t allow attendance during the school day.
  • Some students with extraordinary circumstances, such as medical issues or those attending alternative schools, also benefit from distance learning.

NCVPS doesn’t have specific rules for course eligibility, and there is no necessary minimum grade-point average, but it does require students to have appropriate prerequisite requirements.

“It’s left up to the individual school to determine a student’s eligibility, based on the need of the student,” Brim says.

Johanna Woods, a ninth-grader at Eastern Alamance High School in Mebane, took a NCVPS course last summer called Success 101.

“The course was about managing time with homework, getting ready for jobs and college and preparing you for the real world,” Woods says, noting her mother had heard about the program and wanted her to sign up.

Some of her friends had also signed up for classes, and Woods thought an online class would give her something to do during the summer. She logged in every day to work on assignments, completing the course in eight weeks.

“Students can log in when it’s convenient for them, whether it’s during the day or at 1 a.m.,” Woods says.

What Woods liked best about the program was that she didn’t have to get up and get dressed for school.

“The environment was great,” she says, because she had the opportunity to “chat with the other kids online in class, and the kids learned from each other.”

The Learn and Earn program enables students at participating public high schools in North Carolina to enroll in college-level courses online or at a community college. The program is a partnership that the state Department of Public Instruction forged with the North Carolina Community College System and the University of North Carolina system.

“It’s available to all high school students, but each school system and school has to decide to participate in the program,” Brim says.

Students receive a dual enrollment credit, earning college and high school credits at the same time. Because the high school must award the high school credit, the school has to approve the student’s attendance in the courses, Brim says.

Students talk with a guidance counselor to see if they’re ready for college-level courses.

Some students are offered a fifth year of high school so that, when they graduate, they receive both a high school diploma and an associate degree, he says. In essence, they receive two years of higher education for free.

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