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Rochester high schools make foray into distance learning

09-25 Century Stan Dee class.jpg
Using new technology acquired through a grant, Century High School Stan Dee's advanced math class, Multi Variable Calculus, is being telecast to students at Mayo and John Marshall. The system uses two way communication allowing full participation. An expansion of the technology would allow schools to offer other advanced, limited enrollment options.

To the casual observer, there is nothing about Stan Dee's Century High School calculus classroom that telegraphs the leap into distance learning that Rochester's high schools are making this year.

But as he worked out problems on the board this week, Dee's instruction was being observed by students across the district, his voice and visage speeding along a fiber network to students in John Marshall and Mayo high school classrooms.

Rochester's three public high schools are making a modest foray into distance learning. Officials are limiting this new educational front to a small number of higher-level courses: multi-variable calculus, AP statistics and business accounting.

"It's not without a learning curve," said Bob Snyder, the Rochester district's instructional technology specialist. "We run into snags all the time. But from my experience, the students are very excited about the technology."

Distance or online learning is fairly common at the post-secondary level. Rochester Community and Technical College has a distance learning lab. But the delivery method has been slower to take hold at the K-12 level, where budgets have been tight and priorities different.


A $159,000 technology grant from Qwest Corp. solved the district's funding challenge. The money allowed the district to purchase 105 laptops — 35 for each high school — and to bulk up its fiber network to handle live interactivity between the high schools.

Small numbers

Officials say what made distance learning particularly appealing was the desire to address a problem that Rochester officials have wrestled with for years: What to do when too few students sign up for certain, usually upper-level, courses.

Usually, in such instances, students are forced to drive or take a bus or cab to the Rochester high school where the course is being offered, eating up district transportation dollars and a student's time.

Jeff Kappers, the district's transportation supervisor, said the district spends about $160,000 each year transporting students between high schools and other educational facilities. He estimated that Rochester would save about $20,000 to $30,000 by making the classes available online.

While its beginnings in the Rochester district have been modest, online learning has the potential to grow, officials say. Upper-level foreign languages, where class sizes have been so small that Rochester principals recently urged the elimination of some offerings, are a prime option. Snyder said distance learning also could be a key tool in staff development, allowing teachers to conduct districtwide meetings without leaving their school.

Other districts

Further down the road, there is the potential of offering online courses to students in other districts. Snyder said that at least one district has called Rochester officials and inquired about the availability of online AP courses.


But like any new venture, there have been some skeptics. Snyder said, for different reasons, some teachers regarded distance learning with "some trepidation." Distance learning introduced an element of insecurity. Traditionally, when a teacher closes the door to mark the start of class, their classroom is a confined, isolated space they can see and largely control. Online learning introduces students they often don't see, a sense of being exposed. Plus, the class is recorded, allowing students to view the instruction later.

Whether it works for students really depends on the student, Snyder said.

"The reality is: If it is a mode that you find comfortable to learn in, it's right for you," he said. "We know that there's students that this just isn't going to work for. But we also know that there's students (who) go into an online environment, and all of a sudden, they are thriving."

Catherine McCreadie, a Century senior, said it took her some time to adjust to the new technology for her AP stats class. One clear benefit is she didn't have to be bused all over the district to take the class she wanted. But she admits to being "kind of nervous at first" about how distance learning would work. Knowing herself, she knew she would have to concentrate more.

"I'm not that great with computers, so I was kind of nervous at first with the whole technology and getting it to work, but it ends up being really easy," McCreadie said.

Rory Li, also a Century senior, seemed less enamored with the technology. Li said he has found that it has been harder for him to ask questions while he is in one school, peering at his laptop, and his teacher is in another. He said he prefers being in front of a flesh-and-blood teacher. A couple of times, he has traveled to John Marshall, where the class is offered, so he could take his stats class in person.

"Sometimes, I don't ask as many questions in stats as I do in cal," which is offered at Century," Li said. "It feels sort of weird because all they do is just hear your voice. I'm still learning. I might not learn as well, but I can still learn."


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