Payson Students Flock To Diverse Digital Classes

District teachers will supervise new online classes

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The Payson school district last week took the next big step in developing a whole new system of online courses by selecting teachers to make sure the 79 students enrolled in the new Payson Virtual Academy don’t get lost in a digital daze.

“I think this is the way to hang onto kids and have kids be motivated. It’s incredible what this puts at our fingertips,” said Barbara Fitzgerald, the district’s director of special programs.

Last week, the district appointed four district teachers to teach the online classes, which will rely on a national digital curriculum — replacing last year’s reliance on the Mesa Unified School District to provide the online classes. The online academy teachers include Gail Hodge, Kyle Frewin, Ted Tatum and Barbara Quinlan.

Out of the 79 students, about 62 use the online classes to make up math and English classes they need to graduate. These students generally head for the high school computer lab for a class period every day where they work their way through the online, interactive lessons with a teacher on hand to answer questions and keep them on track.

Five of the students now enrolled in the online academy launched this year take all their classes digitally. Those students were all in the district in regular classrooms last year, said Fitzgerald.

The rest of the students are enrolled in regular classes but sign up for online elective classes, including AP History, AP Calculus, French, Spanish, Digital Media and Art History.

Some students have taken advantage of translator programs, which automatically convert the instructions, demonstrations and online lectures into any of a host of other languages. Fitzgerald said that the online classes last year proved invaluable for a Vietnamese student struggling to learn English.

Students can sign up for the digital classes for free up to a course load of six classes, which is the maximum covered by state funding. Students taking extra classes digitally pay $150 per class, said Fitzgerald.

The recently appointed teachers will add the digital classes to their class loads. The pre-packaged curriculum provides all the lesson plans, videos, tests, references, texts, exercises and links to other sites students need. The teachers will review student work and provide quick answers to any questions.

She said the carefully designed digital classes provide a wealth of different hooks for student learning and suit some students better than sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher lecture.

For instance, she said that one lesson in the art history class started by having the students assemble a digital jig-saw puzzle of the Mona Lisa, linked students to the art collection in the Louvre Art Museum in Paris and a biography of Leonardo da Vinci.

Fitzgerald said she and the newly appointed online academy teachers will focus on not letting students fall between the academic cracks. She said studies of digital classes for high school students suggest that about half of students will simply not complete the course, without supervision, help and intervention.

“Virtual schooling is not for everybody; the student has to have a work ethic and has to work for hours in front of the computer without someone yelling at them to turn the next page,” she said.

“The school of the future will be a blended school — you’ll be doing things on the computer, but also engaging with the teacher and with other people.”

National studies suggest that high school students in well-designed digital programs on average do just as well as students taking the same class face-to-face.

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning in 2009 released a meta-analysis of 51 different studies that concluded online classes cost schools much less to provide, but that test scores showed students did just as well as students in face-to-face classes. Blended programs where students spent some time with a teacher in addition to completing the online lessons generally did slightly better than online-only students.

However, the report also concluded that researchers had not completed enough well-designed, comprehensive studies of the effect on students of online classes.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out now. What makes it work? It really has to do with the monitoring. Are they logged on for four hours but not accomplishing anything? Do they have the commitment and support of the family? And how do we measure that?”

The district decided to start the Virtual Academy with 9th- and 10th-grades, with plans to extend the program once they’ve worked out the kinks, Fitzgerald said.

“That gives us time to make the program a fully accredited high school before the (full-time digital) students graduate,” said Fitzgerald.

Moreover, she hopes the program will dovetail with the hoped-for construction of an Arizona State University campus, which will also make digital learning a cornerstone of instruction. Backers of the ASU campus say students will attend digital lectures beamed in from all over the world.

Moreover, the campus will turn the entire town into a wireless computer hotspot. That’s so the ASU students can do research and attend lectures from their dorm rooms or a bench in the woods. But it will have the spin-off benefit of making it possible for Payson High School students to tap into their digital classes from anywhere in town.

That will help reduce the inequity posed by the number of students without an Internet connection at home. The district provides students with a loaner laptop and students can plug into the Internet on campus, but can’t take full advantage of the program if they can’t work at home as well.

“There’s a real digital divide,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a huge fairness issue. So how do we do that? How do we create that? But ASU will be absolutely wonderful: we’re just waiting for that to happen.”

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