Forest Lake High School could double the number of online classes it offers students next year, as it searches for ways of blending the efficiency of online learning with the educational benefits of human interaction.

Last school year only three of the school's 150 high school courses had a substantive online component, but next year, it could be six.

The hybrid model developing in Forest Lake is different than most online learning efforts that have flourished though they have largely kept students away from classrooms and one another.

While some education policy watchers say online learning could be part of the long-term solution to education funding difficulties, an emerging view is that blended learning is just a better way of teaching.

"One of the things we believe in fundamentally is that the online world is not an all-or-nothing system," says Steve Massey, principal of Forest Lake High School. Witness how the school configured the three classes it offered online last year.

The classes -- creative writing, Web design and a College in the Schools version of animal science -- all required students to be in class at least two days a week, but also included a substantial amount of time online.

Creative writing, for example, meets two days per week, during which students edit one another's work and have what Massey calls "human interaction around their writing." On the other three days the students spend online time going over lecture notes and completing assignments.

Similarly, the animal science class met two days per week to do labs, while students received some of their lectures through video and PowerPoint presentations online.

"Where it makes sense to have learning be virtual and online is where we are doing that," Massey says. "And where it makes sense to have face time and human interaction, we are doing that."

Forest Lake may be leading the way in the hybrid school movement in Washington County, but Stillwater High School is not far behind. At least 15 teachers have developed and implemented a class curriculum that includes some online learning, says Mike Dronen, the district's technology coordinator.

Dronen says the hybrid model is better than either of its components alone. "The research is beginning to suggest that the blended model appears to be a bit more influential than just online, or just face-to-face," he says.

The hybrid model is likely to have a profound effect on how education is delivered, Dronen says. "Students may not need to show up to school until 10 or 11 a.m.," he says. "It will be more like the college model."

Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287