In an effort to provide more choices and expanded educational opportunities to their clients, many community technology centers (CTCs) are turning to online learning. ACC recently spoke with two programs funded under the Department of Education CTC grant program that provide online courses as part of their program offerings. These experiences capture both the promises and pitfalls of online learning and show its potential to complement the great work CTCs across the country are already doing.
Online Learning for Spanish Speakers at Irving.Net in Texas
Irving.Net, a CTC grantee in Irving, TX, in partnership with the Dallas Reads program, has been able to offer distance-learning courses to their clients through Tecnologico (Tec) de Monterrey. This prestigious Mexican university offers Spanish-language online courses in GED, computer certification, and a number of other family, health, and small business development topics. This partnership will graduate its first class of online computer certification graduates in September 2004, and Delia Watley of Irving.Net notes “many of [the] students have already boasted of being offered promotions at their place of employment, with one student returning to Mexico to secure a better job in her native country.”
e-Learning for High School Students in Rural South Dakota
The Black Hills Special Services Cooperative, a CTC grantee in South Dakota, has partnered with the Rapid City School District to offer distance learning via their “Virtual High School.” They have offered full- and half-credit high school courses aligned to national, state, and local standards to their clients. The courses are tailored around the Academies’ trimester offerings. They enjoyed two successful school terms last year and offered online courses during the summer as well. They hope to begin their fall term this September and offer two additional trimesters.
What is Online Learning?
An online course is not simply a traditional course posted on the web. Online courses, and other formal online learning experiences, do share the same end goals as conventional courses, but there are major differences since the interaction and activity takes place through technology. Whereas traditional classes come together at set times for class meetings and engage in face-to-face live discussions, online courses often take place asynchronously with students working independently and, within the structure of the course, on their own schedules. In fact, instructors and learners may never meet or speak in person.
This sort of learning requires significant adjustments for both learners and instructors. The pace and flow of online learning is dramatically different from the typical classroom. Activities or class discussions that might take an hour or two in a classroom can take up to a week or more. Dialogue and interaction without physical contact means an increased focus on written communication skills. Moreover, some traditional classroom activities, such as hands-on demonstrations or spontaneous assistance from an instructor or peer, can be difficult to recreate meaningfully online. Despite these challenges, online learning can provide clients of CTCs with many benefits that are difficult to recreate in traditional approaches to instruction.
The Promise of Online Learning
Flexibility: Learners in community technology programs have very busy schedules and are often trying to balance work and family responsibilities with their educational pursuits. For many individuals, physical attendance required by traditional classes can be a barrier to participation. For other students, the costs and availability of transportation prove difficult, while students with disabilities may not be able to participate in less accessible buildings. Online learning allows all these learners 24-hour access to materials from any computer with Internet access and allows them to determine when and where they participate, taking part in classes in a way that’s most convenient for them. Principal Deb Steele of the Rapid City School District reports that they chose to use eLearning to better meet the needs of their students and felt that they were behind other states in offering “24/7” learning opportunities. Online learning opportunities have allowed them to assist a variety of students in their educational pursuits, including a 71-year old woman completing her high school education, a Rapid City home school student whose family lives in China, and a student who lived in Denmark as an exchange student.
More choices: Irving.Net chose to offer their online courses to meet the specific needs of the population they serve. The majority of their learners speak Spanish as a primary language, and although their center offers a fair number of classes in both English and Spanish, it would take a great deal of time and effort to develop the number of classes Tec de Monterrey already offers online. Using Tec de Monterrey’s existing online courses gives their Spanish-speaking clients significantly more options than their geographical location allows them. In South Dakota, the dwindling teacher pool makes it difficult to offer certain classes in the outlying small towns and rural districts where schools are unable to attract qualified teachers. Offering classes via the Internet gives the students outside the district the opportunity to take classes that aren’t available to them otherwise.
Less intimidating environment: Anxious and timid students, who sometimes find it difficult to participate in class discussion in front of a large group, may find online learning more appealing. Online discussion brings with it a measure of anonymity that can make shy or self-conscious individuals more comfortable. In an online discussion forum, each individual has the same opportunity to “speak up”, and because the pace of online learning is less intense than the traditional weekly class time, students don’t need to rush to get their thoughts and questions out. There is time to reflect on what they say before they say it and read it over before submitting it for others to view.
Accommodating of learner differences: Both instructors and learners can benefit from the different kinds of materials that can be used in an online setting. Instructors may reach learners with diverse learning styles by posting materials in a variety of formats, from text and images to audio and video recordings. Learners, in turn, are able to work both at their own pace and with materials that are more accessible. Irving.Net was concerned that their courses involved a lot of text reading and many of those participating had only basic levels of literacy in their native language. In instances like these, it may be helpful to include audio files of more difficult texts and provide supplementary materials in a multimedia format. Online courses also provide students with constant access to all the course materials and discussions, freeing them from having to concentrate effort on recording class activity because it’s always possible to refer back to any discussion or resource at any time.
Non-academic outcomes: Online courses allow for growth beyond academics as well. While simultaneously working on the content of the course, participants are improving their reading and writing skills as well as honing and expanding their technical skills. Furthermore, this approach encourages learners to take responsibility for their own progress. The lack of personal contact with an instructor and classmates requires students to be self-motivated and self-disciplined. Success with an independent learning experience can be a big self-esteem booster for individuals who may have had limited success in school previously.
Some Challenges of Online Learning
Motivation: The flexibility of online learning requires participants to be highly self-motivated. The lack of physical presence of instructors, classmates, and set class meeting times can make it easy for learners to procrastinate, fall behind, or even stop participating altogether. Irving.Net managed to keep their online course participants motivated by offering refurbished computers to those who complete the requirements and graduate from the 6-month online courses.
Organization: Learners must be able to organize their learning, schedule their time, and set priorities if they are to be successful in the online learning environment. Learners who lack self-discipline or haven’t developed good study habits will have difficulty dealing with the less rigid structure and routine of online learning.
Isolation: The lack of physical interaction with instructors and classmates can make learners feel isolated and less like they are participating than they might in a traditional course. CTC programs like Irving.Net are in a great position to alleviate some of these feelings of isolation by providing their community learning centers (CLCs) as common meeting places for enrolled students. Participants can work side by side at the centers, while still working independently on their course work. Besides the camaraderie that comes from working in proximity to others, participants are able use each other and center staff for support, both academic and technological. The Rapid City School District CTC partnership has also attempted to avert feelings of isolation in their students by offering two tutoring centers that virtual students can go to for face-to-face help. For learners enrolled in online courses who work from home, or for classes that enroll participants from locations all over the globe, these feelings are much more difficult to combat.
To address some of the learner-related challenges of the online-learning environment, the Rapid City School District also requires all students to successfully complete a Student Orientation Course prior to beginning classes in the Virtual School.
Getting Involved in Online Learning
Online learning is not the best option for everyone, but it could be right for you and your CTC program. Consider what benefits it will bring to your CTC audience, and what challenges you and your clients may face.
Program Considerations: Consider whether developing your own online course or partnering with an organization similar to Tec de Monterrey is most appropriate for your CTC program and your clients’ needs. Creating a course from scratch is a time-consuming process. It may be a more appropriate use of time, and a better use of resources, to concentrate on how your CTC can best facilitate your clients’ participation in existing courses. Many online courses are available to the general public on the web in a variety of topics, from professional development for educators, to creative writing for adults, to math instruction for high school students. Explore existing options first and determine whether a quality program exists to meet your clients’ interests and needs or if the benefit to your clients would be greater if you invested in developing your own. Rapid City chose to create its own courses. Principal Steele noted that money was a concern for their program and they did not have the funds to purchase existing online coursework. “We felt that given enough time, we could develop a high school curriculum.” They now offer 15 courses and are working on addressing their next big hurdle… “finding teachers who are willing to teach in this very new environment.”
Learner Considerations: Participating in online learning can provide fantastic opportunities for learners, provided they are prepared for the experience. CTC instructors should work with clients who are interested in participating in online learning to ensure they have the requisite skills before they dive in. CTC programs can offer learning experiences that will help prepare clients to succeed with online learning by helping them practice the reading, writing, and organizational skills needed in an online course, as well as giving support with the technology the course employs. Also remember that even though participation in online courses is flexible, it will take a certain number of hours per week. Making sure clients have enough time to commit to the course is critical to their success. Following Rapid City’s model of requiring the completion of an orientation course prior to participating may be a good idea.
Seek advice from experienced colleagues: Delia Watley of Irving.Net recommends speaking with others who have implemented similar programs before launching one of your own. ACC can help connect programs that are interested in finding out more with those programs that have experience offering online courses. For communities with high percentages of Spanish speaking residents, Irving.Net strongly recommends getting in touch with Tec de Monterrey to discuss online course options with them. This partnership has proven extremely successful for Irving.Net.
Black Hills has enjoyed much success in their eLearning venture and student feedback has been extremely positive. They advise interested programs to attend the Virtual High School Symposium and work to gather as many innovative teachers as possible. “Students today are voting with their feet, and fingers, for the school of their choice. Online education fits into the lifestyles of students today and only makes sense in the world of access today.”
Originally published on September 1, 2004