Should We Be Taking More Online Courses?

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Should We Be Taking More Online Courses?

By Benjy Wall-Feng

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The Internet is huge. For students, that means a few things: social media, gaming, porn. For a small subset of them it means something else, too — more school. Those students are taking classes online, by choice or by necessity. It’s a method that’s been lauded as life-saving and denounced as useless.  And it’s an option for every student, but one that less than two percent of them are taking. Why have so few of them opted to enroll?

Sophomore Gaspard Hauzy took geometry as an online course last year. “I was taking algebra at the same time,” he said. “And I decided to take this class online because I wanted to get ahead.” Hauzy, whose website of choice was National University High School (NUVHS), described a system not too far removed from actual high school: textbooks, homework, quizzes. The difference? “It’s more difficult, in my opinion, because you have to teach yourself, and no teachers are there to help you if you have a question,” he said.

Hauzy thought he knew why the number of students taking online classes was so small. “It’s better to learn with a teacher and more work to do it online,” he said. His personal views were mixed; in retrospect, he thought he had made the right decision. “But while I was doing it I didn’t like it,” he said.

“Online courses go several ways,” counselor Evelyn Dorsett said. “There’s ‘online because I failed the class and I have to pay for it and do it during the summertime,’ there’s online for kids who are trying to accelerate their studies in a certain area, there’s online for kids who want to take classes we don’t offer, and online for kids who may be taking a class here and it’s not the right fit.”

The process of enrollment includes discussion with both parents and counselor, and the selection of a course from the sea of them which can be found on the Internet. The main requirement for a class is that it meet the California State Standards (a list that can be easily obtained by googling its name) for whatever subject it teaches. Students are able to take online classes for a maximum of twenty credits, or two years.

Whether it’s effective is an entirely different question. Dorsett said that taking online classes had the potential to be beneficial, but also that they were difficult to the extent that not all students attempting to take one actually made it through the year. “ It’s quite frequent [for students to dropout of online courses],” she said. “It’s harder to learn online because you have to be super self-motivated, and some kids just don’t budge at the time they need to. I’ve also had two people fail the online course, and they were seniors, and they almost didn’t graduate.”

More generally, a 2010 study by the Department of Education found that students who took online courses did “modestly better” than students in actual classrooms, but the study noted that that difference in performance might be attributed to variables such as additional learning time, something not necessarily exclusive to online courses. (Technology, too, has progressed rapidly since 2010.) The way online classes at Tam are set up does give students until August to complete any given course, but Dorsett says that most of her students don’t utilize that time. “Everyone goes on vacation,” she said. “There are a bunch of kids that told me, ‘Oh, I’m going to work on my independent study in PE over the summertime,’ and when I talked to them they never did because they wanted to have fun in the summer. So now they’re stuck trying to get it all done.”

Not counting PE, around 25 people are enrolled in an online course this year — a similar number as in years past, and a proportionally tiny one. Dorsett offered her own explanation for those low enrollment rates: “Online courses are harder than taking classes at school. So a lot of people think, ‘Oh, do it online, that’s a lot easier,’ because that’s the rumor that floats around. It’s not easier.” As a result, taking an online class isn’t generally recommended to students.

Enter the world of online PE, which PE teacher Lorna Sturgeon described as a “mistake by the people involved.” It’s seen a surge in popularity only recently, after David Brown, interim principal during the 2015-16 school year, approved a large number of students to take it this year. Students enrolled in online PE choose a sport to focus on during the semester, from a list that contains options such as baseball, biking, and walking. Sophomore Camilla Tarpey-Schwed picked tennis, so that she could take chorus at Tam in lieu of on-campus PE. The picture she paints of her online class is of one where rules are barely enforced. “I printed off a packet online,” she said. “And you go through sections online and read the sections in the packet, and at the end there’s a quiz. And the quizzes are graded.” She guessed she spent about thirty minutes a week on the class.

As for the physical part of Physical Education, Tarpey-Schwed said that “the packet tells you to go out and practice.” And she does practice, but also acknowledges that, because there’s no way to enforce physical activity, pretending to practice is a possibility. “I think I know a lot of people who have done that,” she said.

Tarpey-Schwed claimed to know or know of about seventy other sophomores also taking online PE; Dorsett, one of five counselors at Tam, said that twenty of her students were taking it. Both she and Sturgeon agreed that the chances of allowing students to enroll in the class in coming years were slim or nonexistent until a course could be found which met California’s State Standards for Physical Education — none of the classes students are currently taking do, an oversight on the part of last year’s administration. (The standards, for the record, are 24 pages long and comprised of lists of requirements such as “Apply previously learned movement concepts and principles to the learning and development of the motor skills required for successful participation in adventure/outdoor pursuits and activities.”)

PE aside, the list of subjects that can be taken online is massive: every class that Tam offers, like Algebra, and some that it doesn’t, like AP Psychology.

The process of enrollment appears to bypass Tam’s teachers completely. Jennifer Brown, Jennifer Dolan, and Michael Lavezzo — respectively the teacher leaders of science, social studies, and English — all said they had little or no insight into how online classes worked, and many students who take social studies and English via the internet do so because they’re transfer students or because they failed one of those classes.

Another potential pitfall is money. “It was $400 to sign up,” Hauzy said. “Which was a lot, but we managed.” NUVHS, Hauzy’s course provider, charges students for a digital or physical textbook in addition to the actual course. Some online schools offer scholarships; Brigham Young University, the website through which most students are taking online PE, has on its website a form for students seeking “scholarships with a financial need component.” The form requires students to fill out the federally created Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA), as well as answer questions about themselves such as hobbies and goals. Of course, that varies depending on the school. “Online providers are in it for profit,” Dorsett said.

But regardless of whether or not you believe that taking online classes is a good or even reasonable idea, the fact remains that the option exists. “I think it’s a valuable option for particular circumstances,” Dorsett said. “I like it,” said Tarpey-Schwed. “If I wasn’t a sophomore I’d definitely take it again.”

“If you really want to do online courses, you have to be disciplined and take it seriously,” said Hauzy. “But yeah, I’m happy I did it.”