More School Districts Ponder Online Ed Experimentation

To make up for the loss of 95 teachers that budget cuts have forced on the Manchester, New Hampshire school district, administrators are considering joining the ranks of many other districts by introducing more online courses to the schools’ curriculum. Officials believe that this move will do much to appease parents who have been complaining about overcrowded classrooms and inadequate academic materials.

The solution considered by the district is the introduction of the so-called “blended learning labs,” which will allow some students to either take courses completely online, sans input from a teacher, or to learn some of the topics independently via computer-guided learning while a teacher is available near by to lend a helping hand.

This approach would also allow the district to save resources by eliminating redundancy and increasing efficiency. If an offered course doesn’t draw enough interest at one particular high school, students from that school would be able to take it in a virtual classroom while the course is taught at one of the other schools.

Yet, when notified of the plan, Manchester parents didn’t not seem to take to it very kindly. One parent, a community college instructor who has two children set to attend Central High School next year, called the plan “a high-tech baby sitter,” and added that the district was attempting to solve the problem of overcrowding by lowering the quality of instruction offered.

The plan, which Superintendent Thomas J. Brennan Jr. presented to the district’s school board last month, would expand the district’s current use of New Hampshire’s online charter school, the Virtual Learning Academy, by putting a virtual learning lab in each of the district’s three high schools, allowing students to take courses there during the school day under the supervision of a “facilitator” who would be present in the lab.

Although Dr. Brennan said that he wasn’t motivated mainly by the overcrowding issue, solving it could provide a nice fringe benefit. But the primary aim of the new approach is to create more tech-savvy graduates who are familiar and comfortable with using digital learning tools. Still, if that means that the strapped district can avoid spending money to hire some part-time teachers as a result, all the better.

“It deals with the reality of budgets and the limited resources we have, and the need for students and school districts to catch up with technology,” Dr. Brennan said of the plan. “I believe the class sizes will diminish, and it will allow more opportunities for teachers to work with students that are struggling.”

Manchester is far from the only district in the country that is experimenting with this type of digital learning either as means of saving money or while attempting to produce better academic outcomes for their students. Among the most forward pioneers is Florida, where Florida Virtual Academy – a state-sponsored online school – has been in operation for a number of years, and is only one of many online education providers operating in the state.

Along with Alabama, Virginia and Michigan, Florida has also made taking a virtual course a part of its high school graduation requirement in an effort to prepare its students to take similar courses when they started college.

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