High school online classes expand in Westchester County

by Grace

Eight school district in Westchester County are participating in a pilot program offering BOCES-sponsored online classes to their high school students.  The courses were designed by local teachers and make use of  “blended” learning, including both virtual and in-person experiences.  Initially limited to four elective courses, plans call for expansion in future years.

Although this might seem like a low-risk way for the schools to try online learning, I am left with some questions about this initiative.

  • What are the costs, both in terms of money and lost opportunity?
  • How will results be assessed?  Is saving money the main criteria?  Will the outputs be measured in quantifiable ways?
  • Although it seems like a good idea to try online teaching with what appear to be relatively light-weight electives, are there plans to go online with core courses also?  What about AP courses, where offering students more options could be a real way to take advantage of the efficiencies of technology?

It turns out that New York lags behind some other states in K-12 online learning initiatives, which actually could be an advantage if it means that we will learn from the experiences of other states who have taken a leading position in this area.

A reason for New York’s relatively slow start in online learning

Nationally, online learning is taking off. As of late 2010, online learning opportunities were available to some students in 48 states and Washington, D.C., according to the nonprofit International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Twenty-seven states plus Washington also had at least one full-time online school operating statewide. New York was one of the last states to finalize a set of distance-learning standards in 2011.

Martabano said that as a result, students in New York have had limited access to online courses compared with their peers around the country — though there have been recent advances.

You can read the article after the jump.

BOCES helps 8 Westchester districts develop shared online courses

Sep. 15, 2011, Written by Colin Gustafson

Students in Stephen Walker and Bob Oddo’s class won’t be handing in their homework this school year — they’ll be uploading it.

In their new spring elective, “Wanted: Solutions to Problems of the 21st Century,” the Horace Greeley High School teachers will do away with textbooks, classroom tests and term papers. Instead, students will be assigned to write blogs, edit wiki pages and create audio and video podcasts on topics ranging from climate change to U.S foreign policy. In lieu of classes, the teachers will use video conferencing, online chats and email to stay in touch with their students — not just in Chappaqua but seven other Westchester districts.

“We’re trying to bring that real-world experience into (an) online classroom,” Walker said.

Their course is one of four new online electives being offered in eight districts this coming school year under a pilot program by the Putnam-Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Sixty students will meet their teachers face-to-face for the first time today at an orientation at the BOCES Yorktown Heights campus. After that, though, most of their interaction will take place in the virtual world.

Online courses are not new in the Lower Hudson Valley. Croton-Harmon, Nanuet, Nyack and Yonkers have introduced Virtual High School electives taught by teachers from around the country.

But the BOCES program is the first in this region — and one of the first in the state — to share online courses designed by local teachers among a consortium of districts, said Sarah Martabano, regional coordinator of distance education at the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center in Elmsford. She monitors distance learning initiatives in 62 Westchester, Putnam and Rockland districts.

Advocates of online education say it gives students choices beyond their schools and can help cash-strapped districts save money by sharing enrichment options.

The courses are open to juniors and seniors in Bedford, Chappaqua, Katonah-Lewisboro, Lakeland, Mamaroneck, Ossining, Peekskill and Yorktown, and each counts as a regular elective credit.

Organizers hope to expand the program to eight electives, available to more districts, in 2012-13.

The courses use a “blended approach” that combines virtual and in-person learning. After today’s orientation, teachers will join students on several field trips throughout the semester. Each district is also required to have its own site coordinator to work with students to ensure they stay on track.

Beyond that, most day-to-day instruction will take place in online chats, webinars and other forums, with students downloading a syllabus, linking to assigned videos or articles, and uploading their work for review by both teachers and their peers.

To prepare for the courses, teachers had to complete online training sessions last school year and took a two-week workshop at the BOCES campus in July.

Even with this preparation, John Jay High School teacher David Gewanter said the transition to a virtual learning environment will be a challenge.

Online, “your personality doesn’t come across the way it does in a room,” he said. “You don’t see faces, body language, other cues. So you have to find new ways to keep everybody focused.”

Gewanter and his colleague James Panzer are co-teaching “Environmental Physics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Planet” both semesters this school year. As in the regular class at John Jay, students in the online program will design a “passive solar house” that uses only the sun’s energy to heat itself. They’ll also learn about the thermodynamics of clothing and take a field trip to the Indian Point nuclear plant.

In “Making a Lasting Impression: Architecture Across the Centuries and Today,” students will use Google SketchUp to design their own 3-D structures. In addition to a field trip to the Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan and a visit with the architects of Tower 2 at the World Trade Center, students will take “virtual tours” of historic structures such as a medieval Gothic cathedral.

Mamaroneck High School teacher Nick Cucchiarella said the experience will be a far cry from the course he taught a decade ago using paper sketches and carousel slide-show projectors.

“It’s not dusting an old course off the shelf — it’s remaking it entirely,” he said.

The fourth course, “Take Action! Support a Sustainable Community,” will be taught by Christopher DeMattia, a science teacher at Fox Lane High School in Bedford.

Nationally, online learning is taking off. As of late 2010, online learning opportunities were available to some students in 48 states and Washington, D.C., according to the nonprofit International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Twenty-seven states plus Washington also had at least one full-time online school operating statewide. New York was one of the last states to finalize a set of distance-learning standards in 2011.

Martabano said that as a result, students in New York have had limited access to online courses compared with their peers around the country — though there have been recent advances.

The Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES recently created Project Accelerate and AccelerateU, which provide online courses for students and professional development for teachers from other regions. And in 2010, the New York City schools introduced online courses for “credit recovery” (retaking a course a student did not pass) and Advanced Placement courses as part of an online learning initiative. Officials plan to expand that initiative in the years ahead.

Martabano said the new Putnam-Northern Westchester BOCES electives program is “another step in the right direction.”

“I’m thrilled,” said Marla Gardner, director of curriculum and instructional services at BOCES. “I really think this will provide a new opportunity.”

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