Full disclosure: In addition being a journalist, Iadipaolo has worked as State of Michigan Certified public teacher since 1990, and has taught in traditional face-to-face classrooms as well as online for 12 years total.
Demand for virtual learning in Ann Arbor is growing, both in options and student population. There are now over 300 online courses available for students grades 5-12 through the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) system. The series of courses is known as Ann Arbor Virtual+ Academy.
“We have courses from 6th grade math to AP Calculus and everything in between,” said Cynthia Leaman, Principal of Ann Arbor Virtual+. “We are able to offer students, at any school in Ann Arbor Public Schools, up to eight different world languages, regardless of what is being offered inside the building. In a time of tight budgets and staffing reductions, we are able to offer a course to one student. We meet the needs of the students and parents in a wide variety of ways. We are flexible: our courses run 24/7. We offer courses, such as oceanography and game design, that are not offered anywhere else in the district.”
Growing number of students
Leaman added the numbers definitely show that online learning is increasing in Ann Arbor. The most popular classes are math, American Sign Language, Health, and Personal Fitness.
“Online is growing in AAPS,” said Leaman. “During the 2013-2014 school year, we had 216 student seats enrolled through the A2 Virtual+ online learning program. We had 501 students, including summer school during 2013-2014. For the 2014-2015 school year, we had 1,125 student seats enrolled through the online learning program and a total of almost 1500 seats including summer school. During the 2015-2016 school year, we anticipate a 20% increase in enrolled seats.”
In October 2013, the State of Michigan passed Public Act 60, 21f, which stated that parents had the authority to request up to two online classes per term for their child and the schools could not turn the parent down. And so, Ann Arbor Virtual+ was born.
A teacher’s thoughts
William Springer is a World Language Instructor with Michigan Virtual School. Springer has been teaching for eleven years, four in a hybrid face-to-face/teleconferencing environment , and seven as a fully online teacher. He has worked with AAPS students from grade 6-12 though Ann Arbor Virutal+.
Some of the most common reasons Springer said a student gives for taking an online course are:
- This course isn’t available at my school.
- I have a scheduling conflict that prevents me from taking my school’s version of this course.
- I am a professional athlete, and online courses help me accommodate my practice and travel schedule.
- I didn’t pass the course when I took it at my school, so now I’m trying it online.
Springer added that the role of the online teacher differs from a traditional face-to-face teacher.
“Online classes can be as effective, if not more effective than traditional face-to-face classes, given high quality course design, a skilled and passionate instructor, a face-to-face school environment that provides a helpful support system, and a student who is ready to embrace the uniqueness of the online environment,” said Springer.
The freedom that students have in completing the work is one of the largest benefits for the students, adds Springer.
“Students really enjoy being able to work at their own pace and at the time of day they want. Sometimes they’ll put off work in an online course in order to focus on more pressing work in their other classes,” said Springer. “They also have the luxury of working on evenings, weekends, or during traditional school breaks. I find that they also enjoy having increased access to their instructor, which they might not always have at school. For instance, if one of my students sends me a text message during the day, I am very likely to respond within five minutes, regardless of what course I’m focusing on at the time.”
A student perspective
Lydia Evans is a current first-year student at Earldom College. She graduated from Community High School and took online courses as an AAPS student.
“In high school, I took three French courses online because I wanted to move more quickly than the class offered at my high school,” said Evans. “Online courses also gave me the opportunity to take AP French, which was not taught at my school.”
While online education worked for her, Evans said one of the most important parts of learning, either online or in a traditional classroom, is a competent instructor.
“I think a good teacher always trumps an online course,” said Evans. “Especially for languages, a teacher is crucial for helping develop a strong accent and fluency. I was lucky that my mother speaks French, so I could regularly practice with her. If I had not had that resource, I might not have chosen to take an online class.”
She pointed out that she didn’t notice much change in the difficulty of the courses she took online compared to a regular classroom.
“The (classes) are generally comparable, however it really depends on the online class and the regular class you compare it to,” said Evans. “The Middlebury French allowed me to move faster than the class at my high school. However, I think the AP French was probably easier than a normal AP class. I wish it had been more literature based. Online classes also require self-motivation and organization. There is no teacher to motivate and watch out for a student on a daily basis. In that respect, they are more difficult.”
Learning about online education
Leaman stated that Ann Arbor Virtual+ is looking at the data and following students as they enter advanced classes to determine how students do as they move into sequential courses. Currently, all online students still take district common assessments, and while this data is not conclusive yet, most of the students have done well on these exams.
While the school district and the academic world in general debate the merits of online versus in-person education, online classrooms aren’t going away. According to Leaman, it’s an opportunity to develop lifelong skills that will transfer to higher education and the workplace.
“It is our goal to have every student who graduates from Ann Arbor Public Schools take at least one online class,” said Leaman. “Many of the colleges and universities require students to take online classes. Students gain knowledge in technology through the various systems that are used in the process of the course. But most importantly, they learn time management and they learn to take responsibility for their learning.”
For more information about Ann Arbor Virtual + Academy, including enrollment information, visit a2schools.org/a2virtual