Online Courses Open Opportunities For Students, Could Save Money for Schools
Starting next fall, students will have expanded options for taking online courses at Ridge High School.
When students next fall return to a Ridge High School where one instructional period will be cut to save money in a tight school budget, they will have the option of earning class credits in other ways, including online courses.
Sean Siet, director of the school's curriculum, said he expects only a limited number of students — at the very most, 10 percent of the school's population of 1,700 — will sign up for online classes. Even so, Siet said students will have access to about 3,000 online courses, which they may chose to take after receiving permission from the high school administration.
Starting next year, students would be required to pay for the classes, at a cost of between about $200 to $500 per course, Siet said.
Ridge High School already has been offering free online courses on a pilot basis for the past year and a half, Siet said. That course list was made available to students who wanted advanced or unusual courses that wouldn't likely be offered at a public high school, such as very advanced math or language classes.
"We have students taking courses like veterinary science, oceanography and Advanced Placement computer science," Siet said.
The more limited classes offered this year through Virtual High School will be folded into a much larger program, Educere, for which the school district will be charged nothing for adding to its curriculum, Siet said.
Another major change, he said, is that under the pilot program students only were able to sign up for classes not offered at Ridge High School, such as Mandarin Chinese, Russian or specialized art courses.
The new program will allow students even to take their required courses online, after obtaining the approval of himself and the school's principal, Frank Howlett, Siet said.
He said he expects one of the most popular online offerings to be a half-year course on personal finance that is a state requirement for graduation. Students then would be able to fill the second half of the year either with an elective, possibly online, or a study hall.
"It's really for an independent student," Siet said of online learning. "This is really nice for the student who wants more courses," he said. The self-paced classes will be included on a student's transcript, he said, but would not count towards a student's grade point average. That is because the township school system has no way of reviewing and supervising the teachers who are presenting classes.
Those free courses have had limited "seating" for about 5o students per year, Siet said. Siet said he expects that number could increase to about 170 next fall.
Siet said that the district paid about $7,000 for a membership fee to belong to the Virtual High School. Another part of that agreement was to have Ridge teacher Steve Isaacs devote one-fifth of his time to teaching online through Virtual High School. Isaacs no longer will be required to teach classes under the agreement with Educere, Siet said.
Isaacs said in an email last month that his experience teaching classes online had been wonderful and he had received a "great" level of support from the Virtual High School staff. "I taught two semesters of a course called Technology and Multimedia," he wrote. He said he was developing a Video Game Design and Development course for Virtual High School, and would be teaching that course this semester.
Isaacs said he had earned his master's degree in online teaching and learning, and really enjoys the online format for course delivery.
"Students must be able to manage their time, but I found that in most cases even the students who were struggling could succeed with a little extra support from me as well as the site coordinator in their school," Isaacs wrote. "The site coordinator, which is part of the Virtual High School format is the point of contact in the local school where the student attends. Having a liaison like that certainly helps when working with high school age students," he said.
The online format also allows students more time to reflect, and shy students to be able to contribute in a different manner, Isaacs said.
In addition to teaching classes for high school students, Isaacs said he had been teaching a best practices and professional development course for educators through Virtual High School.
Isaacs said he believes that students who took the high school online courses enjoy the format, while it prepares them for a different style of learning that is quite relevant in the 21st century.
A random sampling of students and one former student indicated some level of unsureness about whether online learning would be right for them.
Kayla Hiller, a junior, was among those who said she would be unlikely to sign up for an online course. She said Ridge High School is considered one of the best schools in the country, with some of the best teachers, and she would prefer to learn in a classroom with those teachers.
Frank Ascolese, another junior, said he would rather not take an online course. He said he believes he would learn more in a classroom, with a teacher.
Rohit Joshi, a Ridge graduate who now is a college senior majoring in engineering, said that he would have been wary of taking a course that didn't count towards his grade point average. But he said he might have been more willing to take a course such as personal finance, which he said he wished had been offered when he was a student at Ridge High School.
Adi Manohar said one of his friends had taken an anatomy course and did not find it useful. He said the friend told him she had done all of the homework at one time.
"It would be hard without direct instruction from the teacher, I think," said Sebastian Urbaniak, a sophomore at Ridge High School. He said the only way he might take an online course is if he needed to take a remedial class, "if it ever came down to that."
The township Board of Education decided in November to reduce the number of periods per day at Ridge High School from nine to eight, a move that school officials said would save about $240,000 next year by cutting about eight staff members. The reduction was part of the school district's avowed need to cut next year's budget to make up for the loss of millions of dollars in state aid.
However, school officials said students will have longer class periods because of the shift to eight periods.
At the same time, the board approved a more flexible plan, to begin next year, for students to achieve high school credits. That plan includes online learning, acceptance of college credits earned by upperclassmen, and physical education credits granted for participation in school sports.
_ with Jake Sperling