Going The Distance: Part-Time Online Learning Lacking

Jan 22, 2016

Credit Jisc, Flickr Creative Commons

At Powell High School, students can blend their classroom learning with an online course or two.

“They could be taking a foreign language such as German that we don’t offer,” says Park County Superintendent Kevin Mitchell. “They could be taking science classes that we don’t offer.”

The District offers online classes through Florida Virtual School, which serves more than 200,000 students worldwide—most of them part-timers. Mitchell says his district spends about $88,000 a year on online learning—and it’s worth it, not only for the new subject matter, but also because students are learning how to learn online.

“We want to make sure that we’re preparing our students to be able to meet those challenges out there,” Mitchell says. 

Last year, there were only about 115 part-time virtual learners in the whole state, according to the Wyoming Department of Education. A task force launched by the Department reported that part-time virtual education needs to be dramatically expanded.

For the most part, when Wyoming kids want to learn online, they leave their school district and enroll from home at one of the full-time virtual programs. Mitchell says he’s trying to stay ahead of the curve.

“We see that if we’re not going to provide opportunities for our students in-house, they have multiple, multiple opportunities to leave us and get an education online,” says Mitchell.

WDE’s Laurel Ballard helped lead the Distance Education Task Force requested by state lawmakers last year. The group conducted a survey and found that 93 percent of Wyoming educators said they would use part-time online classes if they were available statewide. 

“We haven’t had a whole lot of success at getting that moving in the state,” Ballard says.

The task force report has proposed some fixes. WDE Chief Academic Officer Brent Bacon says it needs to be easier for districts to find and enroll in these one-off courses—and prices must be lower.

“Districts are paying out big bucks for kids if they’re getting a one or a two-class, a part-time model,” says Bacon. “Hopefully, these recommendations come in and help those districts at a cheaper price.”

The task force proposed a course catalog and learning management system run by the Department. WDE would help districts develop virtual education classes and offer them to other districts statewide. Bacon says, by banding together, districts would likely pay less than they do now.  

“Our hope [is] that this model would bring in Wyoming teachers from around the state teaching what they do best, but in an online system to kids,” says Bacon.

That sort of model has worked elsewhere. Jubal Yennie was a superintendent in Northeast Tennessee, where 15 school districts shared resources and expertise through virtual education. 

“We actually had a program where we hired a physics teacher and we able to do distance learning with a school system that was 25, 30 miles away,” says Yennie. “So we were offering the course and they were taking it. Some of those kind of collaboration things worked very well and I think would work very well in Wyoming.”

Yennie is now the superintendent in Albany County. He says there’s not much online or blended learning happening in Laramie right now. In some states, high school students are required to take online classes to graduate.

Yennie says he hopes the state’s proposed efforts boost virtual learning and let Laramie teachers impact students statewide.

“We do have a great deal of qualified, wonderful, capable teachers that I think would embrace the concept of supporting online learning throughout the state—in some of these rural areas that are unable to hire a physics or chemistry teacher, for instance,” Yennie says.

But it’s unclear when that day will come. Most of the state task force’s recommendations can only move forward with new legislation. So far, lawmakers have not taken any action on the report. 

These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.