Gym class online? Schools stretch with new offerings

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2010 - 10:08 AM

From creative writing to animal science to gym, teachers are adding online work and reducing classtime.

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At a hybrid in-class/online physical education class at Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights, summer-school students showed up for group cardiovascular and balancing exercises.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Three mornings a week, students in Carrie DeValk's college-level composition class at New Prague High School will report to her classroom just as they would to any other class.

The other two days, they can choose to work online in the library -- or even at home.

It sounds great to Taylor Rookaird. "It simulates how you're going to learn on the college campus," said the senior, who's taking the class.

Hybrid courses such as DeValk's, which blend online and in-class lessons, are increasingly common at Twin Cities metro-area high schools. It's a trend that advocates say is the future of education, giving students the benefits of online learning as well as regular face-to-face time with classmates and teachers.

No one denies it has pitfalls. "If you're not very organized, if you're not self-motivated, you're going to fall off the productivity train," said Elizabeth Boeser, who teaches two hybrid courses at Bloomington Jefferson High. "It's not the best way for everybody."

But fans say the advantages include flexibility for busy students, a more comfortable debate forum for shy ones and more one-on-one time with teachers.

The courses, in subjects from animal science to journalism, are springing up in an era when new technology permeates schools. Web-based college courses are increasingly common, and more K-12 students are enrolling full time in online schools. Even in traditional classrooms, many teachers post assignments, notes and videos on class websites.

"If these resources are available [online], it then begs the question, 'Does the student really need to come to class, for this part of the class?' Maybe not," said Steve Massey, principal of Forest Lake Area High School, which has launched several hybrid courses. "There's no doubt students are living in an online world."

Many students are used to seeking information on the Internet. Online classes help them prepare for web-based college courses and jobs requiring 21st-century skills, many principals add.

Some administrators acknowledge that they're also competing with online schools and other districts for students -- and the state per-pupil funding that comes with them.

"Of course people want to offer variety and choice to students," said John Weisser, secondary technology coordinator for the Bloomington school district. "But they also recognize that there's this burgeoning industry that is starting to have the potential to lure students away."

Minnesota public school students may apply to enroll, at no cost, in more than 20 public online learning programs that are certified by the state. The programs are sponsored by school districts such as Minneapolis, charter schools or clusters of districts working together. Last year, they enrolled nearly 11,900 part- and full-time students in grades K-12, about 1 percent of the state's student body.

But any school can offer online courses to its own students, and a growing number have done so or plan to, from Prior Lake to Mounds View.

Web-based courses vary widely at both traditional and online schools. Many classes are primarily online. In some cases, schools buy lessons from for-profit companies. Some classes are for students who need to make up credits.

Teachers adapt

But a growing number of mainstream teachers are adapting their own lessons to hybrid courses, including many for average or advanced students.

Bloomington Jefferson High School started piloting hybrid online classes a few years ago and now has about a dozen teachers who offer them. The classes aren't open to freshmen, Weisser said.

This year, more than 20 percent of the school's graduating seniors had taken at least one online or hybrid course. By 2015, the district hopes that figure will grow to half of all seniors, he said. It also aims to provide a hybrid or online alternative to a quarter of all high school classes.

Boeser teaches hybrid classes in college writing and creative writing at Bloomington Jefferson. She weaves blogs and other online tools into her lessons, which include a mix of individual and group writing.

Last spring, her college writing class of about 35 seniors met twice a week. Each student had a third weekly meeting with a smaller group of about a dozen, she said. The other two days, students could do whatever they wanted: Sleep in, leave early, write at midnight.

Students lost that privilege if they fell behind, she said. "If you have a C-minus or below, you have to be in my classroom every day."

"People think that online school is a bad thing because students don't have contact with a teacher, and I agree," Boeser said. Students need to be taught by "a living, breathing person," she said, but the structure of her hybrid classes gave her more one-on-one time with students. Instead of getting an essay back with a few comments and a grade, "They were finally able to talk to a teacher about their writing."

Teachers who say hybrid learning is best are backed by some research, including a review of online learning studies that was prepared for the U.S. Department of Education last year. The report found that, on average, students who learned online -- particularly those in blended courses -- performed better than those who got only face-to-face instruction.

However, that conclusion should be taken with a grain of salt, the report warned. While some researchers have contrasted online and in-person learning for college and medical students, few have studied K-12 classes. Plus, students in the blended courses often got more learning time and had other advantages that those in control groups did not.

Some teachers say they still prefer traditional classes. "I really think the kids get a lot more from being in class every day," said Deana Walsh, who taught hybrid physical education and health classes this summer at Simley High School in Inver Grove Heights. Still, she added, some learners seem to do better on their own, and "this is just one more way" to teach.

Students in her P.E. class met every other day for typical gym activities. Other days, they did assignments that were available online and filled out a log to record exercise they had to get on their own.

Did students work as hard as they would have in a regular class? "It's a legitimate concern," she said. "Obviously, there's a huge level of trust that has to be put in kids who are taking an online class."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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