Online courses are about to be a larger part of Hall County schools, increasing from five courses to 13 and now to perhaps “in the neighborhood of 50 over the next couple of years,” Ley Hathcock, the district’s digital convergence specialist, said.
That title for Hathcock is new. Some technology is new. The idea of an expanded online offering is even newer.
The Hall County Board of Education gave the green light Monday to a quick expansion, except it’s not really quick, Hathcock said.
“We’ve looked around all over the country” at online systems, he said. “We’ve certainly learned a lot the last couple of years about what makes a successful online student.”
Hathcock and Superintendent Will Schofield preach the advantages of “blended” courses — a combination of online instruction and face-to-face time with an instructor. That face time may be online, itself, but it is one instructor and one student at a time in a video conference. It also may be meeting a teacher once a week or month for a “real time” session.
Schofield said online education is useful for myriad reasons. He cited lack of capacity for a school district to offer specific courses, students’ increasing desire to “broaden their horizons” and giving students a chance to recover when they fall behind.
“Blended learning seems to be the best approach,” Hathcock said, pointing out it provides more supervision for students than a computer and student. It also can provide more one-on-one time between instructor and student.
Hathcock, who has had his new title for this year, also is an assistant principal at North Hall High School, a post he has held for three years. Starting this summer, he will be in the district’s central office, working full-time on digital and online items.
The impetus for the expansion of online courses is one of Hall County schools’ themes: More choices for more students.
“We can offer more choices and in doing so, better meet needs, and those needs could be learning style, they could be areas or interest or career goals,” Hathcock said.
Online courses may be taken during a school day, as part of the student’s schedule — if that course is not offered by the school or schedules don’t match up. Students also may take an “eighth” course, Schofield noted, an extra class for more credit or just for interest.
Technology also has improved, and is improving, Hathcock noted. Video conferencing — the district uses “Zoom” — is technically better than it was.
Education should use technology to widen choices, Hathcock said.
“Unless we do in education (and incorporate technology), like we do in business and everywhere else, we’re doing those kids a disservice,” he said.
The expansion of courses will come through curriculum the district already buys, Hathcock told the board.
“We already have the courses,” Schofield said. “We’ve gotten fairly adept at offering online.”
He said about 25 of the 98 courses “are in line” with Georgia education standards. Those will be the first ones to be offered.
Hall County has had online courses for four years, and now has about 200 students. The courses have been limited to Spanish I-III and personal fitness and health, which is required for high school graduation. Honors Spanish and Spanish IV will be added in the fall.
Hathcock explained the number of students requesting personal fitness and health while still in middle school “has exploded” because they can get the high school credit out of the way.
The county schools have one instructor and one assistant dedicated to the online courses, Hathcock said.
Online teaching requires “some real digital skills,” he said. “If you watch them teach these kids, they’re like air traffic controllers”
Most of the development of additional courses will be done through current teachers. They will work on those courses instead of teaching one to three classes so little additional money will be required. Hathcock also said some teachers are likely to work some this summer on extended contracts, helping with online courses.
Some courses, he said, are readily adapted; others are created by Hall County. Chinese I was purchased, but Chinese II was developed by Hall teachers. He also said the district has a “coordinate algebra/geometry A” course that was created “from scratch” by district teachers.
As part of the school board approval, a tuition structure for the courses was approved. Hall County students do not pay for taking courses if they are part of the normal school day. If a student takes an online course as an “extra,” such as summer school, he or she will pay $250 per course a year from now, summer 2017.
Students from outside the district will start paying tuition — $250 per half credit and $500 for a yearlong course — with courses taken this summer.
“It’s challenging to complete an entire, full credit yearlong course in the short summer session, so dividing the courses makes it realistic for a student earn credit for half the course,” Hathcock said.
“I firmly believe online education has a role to play in 21st century education,” Schofield said, “but it certainly doesn’t replace a classroom teacher.
“Learning occurs in one-on-one interaction with human beings,” he said.