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Closing The Achievement Gap, Online: Part I


Online and so-called “virtual learning” has exploded in popularity in recent years, and Connecticut is just starting to catch up. But without any state oversight, some educators worry that students who are given the online option are being shortchanged. The Connecticut Mirror’s NeenaSatija reports on the hodgepodge of virtual learning programs that are used in schools across Connecticut. (Read Part II of the series here.)

17-year-old Devante Burney sits in the computer lab of Pathways to Technology, a magnet school in Hartford. He’s taking a World History course.

“See it’s talking about the beginning of the world, 20,000 years ago,” Burney says, describing what he was studying that day. “Where did we inherit from Asia, Europe, different places, and you have to figure out the correct answer.”

“I think [the correct answer is] Asia,” he says – and then he clicks. “Yes it is! Asia.”

Devante isn’t reading from a textbook; instead, he’s using an online courseware called PLATO Learning, which the school buys for $1000 per student seat. He doesn’t have a history teacher. But he says he likes this course better than the one he failed in school because he can take PLATO learning tests with his notes in front of him.

“In case I might fail I can take it over because I wrote down all the answers,” Burney says.

About 15 other students are taking PLATO Learning courses in the computer lab along with Devante. They haven’t done well in the traditional classroom setting, so now they’re trying to recover credits online – everything from History to English, to Math, and even Health. For students that struggled in the brick-and-mortar classes, online classes can still be a tough sell.

“Some of them find it hard to learn on the computer without having a teacher to instruct them,” said Beverly Moquin, a math teacher who supervises the students.  “But we’ve had a lot of successes too, you know, so it depends on the individual student.”

Only forty percent of students taking the online classes at Pathways have passed them so far. And here’s a big difference between classroom learning and online learning at the school. If you fail a brick-and-mortar class, you can’t take it over. But on Plato, you just keep taking the same course over and over again until you pass.

A 2010 state law actually requires poor-performing districts like Hartford to offer students the option to recover credits online. But no one at the state department of education is monitoring online learning in Connecticut. Karen Kaplan was the state educational technology director and had just started to collect data from districts about online learning when she left her position in August of 2010.

“We were looking at which kids failed, made it through, what supports did the districts put in place,” Kaplan said. “Unfortunately just at the end of the summer when the results were coming in is when I left the state, and no one followed up on it, I’m afraid.”

Kaplan now works for Hamden Public Schools. When she helped write the law about online learning in Connecticut, she imagined programs that provided engaging and interactive materials to get kids motivated again. She imagined online teachers who could follow students’ progress remotely along with regular teachers in “brick and mortar” settings. But she’s disappointed with what’s happened in many school districts.

“If you use it as part of a regular classroom where there is a teacher, it’s terrific,” Kaplan said. “But as a standalone product, without a teacher, it would not be something that I would endorse for the students of Hamden.”

But this is happening in the state – and not just at magnet schools like Pathways. It’s happening in districts like New Britain, New London, and New Haven.

The Meriden school district spends about $30,000 a year on a program called OdysseyWare. For that money, 41 students can use it at any given time. For students who have trouble reading, it can read a lesson aloud. Here’s how that sounds.

“[Robotic, broken voice reads:] Transparent minerals allow a lot of light to pee through. Some minerals react with hydrochloric acid (HCL) by releasing levels of carbon dioxide.”

At Maloney High School, OdysseyWare is being used to help some of the 100 freshmen each year who don’t become sophomores. The idea is to motivate students who need just a few more credits.

“Their efforts feel futile,” said Jennifer Straub, one of Maloney’s assistant principals. “So they’re in the class, they’ve lost the credit, it’s only December, the expectation is that they just hang in there because to be a full-time student you have to be here all day every day. So this is an opportunity for redemption.” 

Last year Meriden was able to offer summer school for the first time by charging kids $50 to take online courses using OdysseyWare. They sat in classes of 20 students with a supervising teacher, and the program was so popular that dozens of students were turned away for lack of space. During the year, kids who are struggling can also use OdysseyWare after school or during a new Saturday Academy – in addition to staying in the classroom course. That’s been helpful for 17-year-old Edward Fulke, who only had a 30 percent in biology before he started using OdysseyWare.

“It’s a lot quieter,” Fulke said as he worked through a lesson on the computer screen at the school library. “You can focus more and you don’t have the other people talking and distracting you.”

Karen Kaplan said she’s pleased with the way Meriden is using online courseware during the school year. It’s what she calls a “blended learning” model, where students have a computer in addition to classroom instruction rather than as a replacement for it. But without any oversight from the state, some districts are giving online courseware options to kids who can’t read well enough to take them. Math teacher Beverly Moquin says that’s a big reason students don’t always pass online courses at Pathways.

But at the same time, she said, “It’s helping the reading. So even if content is too difficult, even if they don’t pass the Plato, they’ve definitely improved their reading comprehension. And some study skills and organizational skills that they’re going to need when they leave high school.”

Districts are only just starting to write policies around what online courses will be acceptable for earning school credit, but as they evaluate how the experiment is going so far, they’re excited about the future potential.

“It’s not going to look like this forever,” said Kate Dougherty, director of special projects at Pathways. “In the next five years I definitely see kids staying home and learning from home. I think we can’t even envision what the education world looks like.”

Many of the state’s lowest-performing districts, including Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven, have said they’d love to expand online learning options. But it all depends on whether they have the money.

For WNPR, I’m Neena Satija.

In part II of Closing the Achievement Gap online, we’ll look at how online learning means more private corporations in public schools.

This story is part of a reporting partnership with the Connecticut Mirror. Read more at ctmirror.org.

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