Cyber Classes Popular at Traditional High Schools


No longer are cyber-charter or private cyber-academies the only online options for K-12 students. Traditional schools now offer more online and blended programs (classes that combine online and in-school sessions) as technology transforms education at all levels.

'Students want to do this'

Downingtown Area School District in Chester County, PA, began offering cyber options in 2011 and blended courses in 2014. “Students want to do this,” says Kristie Burk, coordinator of the district’s digital learning, and the district can’t ignore that demand. Last year, more than 1,200 high school students registered for Downingtown’s blended classes; 37 took all of their classes online. There are as many reasons as there are cyber students, she says.

Here are some reasons:

Flexibility for athletes, working students

Cyber options appeal to athletes, for example, who might need to miss 7th and 8th periods or elite athletes who travel, train or compete in other parts of the country. Online courses also serve students with medical issues, from irritable bowel syndrome to Lyme disease or depression.

Students in Downingtown’s allied-health internship program, which takes students off campus during first and second periods, can schedule courses online that they’d otherwise miss.

Online and blended courses help students who need to work at jobs where shifts overlap traditional school hours.

Helps students in alternative ed programs

The Douglass School is an alternative school in the Christina School District
 in Delaware whose primary goal is to support students as they prepare to return from Douglass to their geographic school, according to James Daniels, director of education. Douglass provides counseling and behavioral components in small, blended classrooms. Academic content, through online platforms, is individualized and targeted to fill gaps in the student’s path. Digital maps help students see where they are in their program and allow them to pace their education. They can, for example, fast track what they’ve missed in order to graduate on time. Daniels says students have told him, “If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t have graduated.”

Homework, classwork flip roles

Cyber options flip how in-class and homework time are used, says Washington Township (Sewell, NJ) Schools’ Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction, Jack McGee, and Director of Secondary Education and Institutional Technology, Steve Gregor, EdD. Cyber lessons provide introductory and back- ground material to students at home, at the doctor’s office, or anywhere; students can then replay them as needed to fully grasp the material.

Cyber lessons flip the role of the teacher as lecturer. Group sessions can be used for deeper investigation, problem solving and applications, explains Wendy Morales, digital media arts and technology supervisor for Middletown Township Public Schools in Leonardo, NJ. Teachers facilitate online conversations, connections among classrooms and interviews with experts in the field. They can interact with students online, as well as in school.

An example of a flipped approach comes from McGee and Gregor. For homework, students might view a video on the conditions of the North and South prior to
 the Civil War. Then class time is used to apply that information in small groups and strategize economic, political and military objectives. The teacher helps guide the process and works with the class to analyze how their projections compare with what actually occurred.

The result is greater participation by all the students (rather than domination of class time by a few) as well as individual student ownership of learning, and greater achievement and retention.

Personalized education

Many districts, such as Middletown and Washington townships, provide students in grades 3–12 with digital devices. With information at their fingertips 24/7, students can explore artistic or engineering aspects of the material that excite them, says Morales. Infused with this access and Middletown’s allocation of time for students to pursue their individual interests (the so-called Genius Hour), non-traditional learners can shine, she says.

In this rich electronic environment, instruction meets the student at his
 own level, says McGee. Being able to
 pace one’s own lessons over the span of
 a week reduces pressure while building
 a student’s time-management skills. Struggling students who might “not get” the traditional lecture have online options for multiple approaches as well as access to district teachers. Students say they feel less stressed.

Digital devices also help bridge the digital divide and allow staff to track students’ progress, including AP scores, and the greater participation from traditionally underrepresented voices.

Disadvantages to online learning

An obvious disadvantage of cyber-dependent education, says Gregor, is that “Machines break down. They need maintenance; you have to charge them.” He notes that a similar argument was heard in the 16th century over the use of the pencil. With time and experience, these issues are overcome, he says.

“With freedom and flexibility comes responsibility,” says Burk. Some students struggle with the independence associated with online coursework and are easily distracted. But, she says, interventions with teachers, physically and virtually, are available and the improved time-management skills will serve students in the future.

Cost to the district might be seen as a disadvantage, but the schools with devices for all students say the advantages far outweigh that disadvantage.

Finally, contrary to a popular misconception, digital courses are actually more work for teachers than the traditional approaches, McGee says. In addition to professional development, they must familiarize themselves with online sites and curate content; create digital lesson materials, including links to relevant resources; facilitate investigations and applications; monitor online discussions, and communicate with students online and in class.

The future is cyber learning

New Jersey requires 2.5 credits in financial literacy for graduation that, in Washington Township schools, is often met digitally. Downingtown requires students to take at least one blended or cyber course to graduate.

Morales acknowledges that some parents are uncomfortable with cyber learning, because they didn’t learn that way, or it doesn’t fit their stereotype of what school should look like.

But as McGee notes, “The goal is to prepare them for their future, not for our past.”

 Ann L. Rappoport, PhD, is a contributing writer to MetroKids.


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