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Schools seek virtual learning blend

Hall, Gainesville introduce online classes still linked to classrooms and teachers

POSTED: February 17, 2013 12:30 a.m.

As technology provides more avenues for learning, local school systems continue to explore ways students can use it to personalize their education.

Both the Hall County and Gainesville school systems offer some form of virtual education and both systems offer blended learning courses, where technology and online resources are utilized in the classrooms.

Wood’s Mill High School in Gainesville has been working with virtual classes for four years.

The county currently offers two online courses for high school students: Spanish I and health, which started fall semester. Administrators say the two classes have been successful. The first round of Spanish 1 students are expected to complete the course this spring.

School officials now are learning what the next steps for virtual education could involve.

The Hall County School Board discussed a “blended learning academy” approach to education at its meeting Monday night. The board will continue to discuss the model at coming meetings before making any decisions.

Under the blended approach, students could take classes both online and at school, based on their individual interests and needs. The model would allow students more flexibility in where and when they study. They would also be able to move through coursework at their own pace, rather than with other students in class.

The model is thought to provide a more personalized learning experience for students.

“For the last 75 years, schools have basically said, ‘Based on your chronological age, for about 180 days a year, we have a program that starts at about 8 o’clock in the morning and finishes at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,’” Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said. “That’s all take it or leave it. We are just envisioning a whole lot more options for families.”

Merrianne Dyer, superintendent for Gainesville City Schools, said the blended learning is in demand right now. She said the model is primarily an attractive options for home-schooled students who would like to take a course offered through the system.

Under the usual virtual learning model, students would take classes purely online. Under a blended learning approach, students could take an online class and still get face time with their teachers.

A student taking a science class through a blended learning model, for example, may not have to go to school for assignments and lessons, which could be done at home online. The student would attend class on lab days.

“We continue to look at and talk about a blended option that would include some virtual components,” Schofield said. “That would include an asynchronous 24/7 opportunity to learn that would be very different for students.”

The Hall County system has spent the last 18 months discussing the different ways lessons could be delivered. The system wants to explore its options carefully before deciding the next step.

“What the next steps don’t include are just offering a bunch of virtual courses,” Schofield said. “What people are finding around the country is that — surprise surprise! — when 13-year olds are given a virtual class, we get six months down the road and log on and find out they just haven’t been doing their work every day. It only appears that 10 to 15 percent of the (student) population learns best in a purely virtual environment.”

Schofield said teachers cannot be replaced when it comes to building relationships and providing feedback to students.

Wes Vonier, Spanish teacher at Chestatee High School, teaches the virtual Spanish course to students at five schools across the county. Students are able to communicate with Vonier and the other students via instant messaging, email and video conferencing.

Some of his virtual students take the course in the computer lab at their home schools during the school day. Others do so at their convenience.

Vonier said teaching a foreign language online is an interesting endeavor. The students listen to audio files to learn the correct pronunciation and submit recorded MP3s to Vonier to review how well they’re learning to speak the language.

“I’ve been teaching for 10 years and I’ve always wondered how can we incorporate computers and instant feedback to students,” Vonier said. “For me this is really exciting. ... It’s amazing what we can do through the use of technology.”

In the beginning of the course, Vonier has to answer a lot of technical questions, like how to submit assignments. Now that the students understand the technical components of the class he said they’re moving through the curriculum nicely.

Students are able to take the class at their own pace. When they’ve mastered the lessons in one section, they can move on to the next. In the classroom setting, all students have to learn at a fairly similar pace.

The first group of students is expected to complete the Spanish I course this spring.

The blended model of learning could allow students an opportunity to learn in a different way.

“For the first time in my 27 years, we have a real opportunity in the next five to 10 years to start to make education look a lot less like a factory,” Schofield said. “It could look a lot more like what I call a 21st century one-room schoolhouse with children on individual learning paths doing a lot of things with their age-appropriate friends.”


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