Virtual classes find home in real classrooms

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 18, 2012 

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More Beaufort County students could be taking courses from the comfort of their bedrooms or kitchen tables next year.

The district plans to increase the number of courses it offers online from three to 11.

Cory Tressler, the district's director of virtual learning, said that expanding the offerings will give students a better opportunity to take high-level courses. Often these courses are not offered at each high school -- too few students are interested in taking them to justify the cost or there's no teacher available for them.

Currently, keyboarding, advanced placement physics and advanced placement calculus BC are offered. About 150 students are enrolled in the courses. Keyboarding is the most popular.

Next year, AP courses in world history, environmental science, Spanish and French will be added. Classes in creative writing, art history and contemporary music also are planned.

Teachers of each virtual course record their lectures and notes and post them to Moodlerooms, an online space where students can watch the videos, submit assignments and interact with the teacher.

Bluffton High School teacher Kevin Sandusky, who teaches the AP physics course, said teaching virtually can be challenging. Physics is visual, hands-on subject, he said, and doesn't lend itself to teaching via computer.

He also realized how much he was energized by being in front of his pupils.

"I can't teach without an audience," he said. "I would go for about five minutes and then get tongue-tied. And I've been teaching for 15 years."

Only practice has made him better, he said.

Only one student is enrolled in his virtual course. The student, who attends Hilton Head Island High School, will meet with Sandusky in person about seven times this school year for Saturday labs. Most of their communication is via email a few times a week.

Tressler said students in the calculus course have met for tutoring sessions on weekends, and some teachers hold virtual office hours with video-conferencing software.

Sandusky said the student in the virtual physics course is "high-flying." The student is highly motivated and works hard. It wouldn't work out well if he weren't, Sandusky said.

"I can suggest immediate help when I have the student live, but I can't do that with the online classes," he said.

Tressler said the virtual programs are aimed at high achievers, many of whom take online studiesin addition to a full class load, he said.

"These students are extremely passionate and extremely highly motivated to get good grades, pass these exams and get on to the next level," he said. "That's one of the reasons why we chose (to offer) higher level courses over, say, Algebra 1 or English 1."

Tressler said the district will use AP test results to gauge the courses' effectiveness.

And so far, teachers have been telling Tressler that their students are keeping pace and doing well. Nonetheless, new virtual courses will be rolled out slowly.

"It's not like we're opening our own virtual schools," he said. "We look at courses that principals and guidance counselors have said they'd love to offer but can't. Then we try to find the best teacher for that course in the district to work with them."

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content: MoodleRooms

Summer school goes online in effort to keep students sharp during break; May 17, 2010

Virtual Summer School program paying learning dividends, officials say; Oct. 19, 2010

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