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Scott Olster

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Virtual Education

Posted: 06/02/10 11:59 AM ET

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The classroom computer has typically held backseat status to the blackboard and certainly the teacher. For many school districts nationwide, and now in New York City, the computer is poised to move to the head of the class, particularly as a tool to increase graduation rates.

New York City’s Department of Education launched the NYC Innovation Zone in April, a $10 million initiative in which 81 schools plan to test a variety of education methods, from expanding the hours of the school day, to using virtual education for advanced placement and credit recovery courses. Approximately $1.5 million of the $10 million budget is slated to be devoted exclusively to purchasing virtual credit recovery programs, according to school spokesperson Matthew Mittenthal.

The Innovation Zone is the city’s first major investment in virtual education. Until now, the city has lagged behind a national expansion of virtual schools and online learning programs.

Some of the schools receiving I-zone money plan to increase instructional time. Others plan to use online learning. “Online learning affords flexibility to personalize students’ needs,” said Arthur VanderVeen, a director for innovation, research, and development at the city’s education department who is overseeing the Innovation Zone.

Several Innovation Zone schools are expected to add virtual learning into their curriculum, including advanced placement courses for high-achieving students as well as credit recovery courses. “In the high schools, you’ll see a lot of credit recovery and AP online programs,” said Mittenthal.

While advocates for virtual education argue that these programs are meant to assist classroom-based teachers, could they just as easily render a teacher’s presence in the classroom unnecessary?

“I don’t think I need to see my students five days a week to teach them. You can deliver content without being in front of someone,” said Susan Palmer, a social studies teacher at Akron High School in Akron, N.Y.

Weeks after the Innovation Zone announcement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to eliminate 6,700 teaching jobs in order to close a $5 billion citywide budget shortfall. The Department of Education insisted that the goal of the I-Zone with its emphasis on virtual education has nothing to do with eliminating teachers. “With none of these innovations do we want to remove a teacher from a classroom,” Mittenthal said.

New York City's education department expanded its budget for evening and summer courses by 10 percent between 2004 and 2008, from over $175 million to $194 million. Several education companies have lined up to take advantage of the opening of New York City's enormous market of over 1.1 million students in over 1600 schools.

New York City school principals are entitled to close to $10 million to purchase software for their schools for the 2010-2011 school year through the New York State Textbook Law program.

The the city’s education department has awarded almost $5 million in contracts this year to companies that provide virtual credit recovery, and this does not include the hundreds of schools that have purchased software using their individual budgets to cover the costs. The $5 million in contracts includes $250,000 to a company called Virtual High School to provide an online teaching to New York City students.

Monroe Academy for Visual Arts and Design in the Bronx opens its lab of 30 computers from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday during the school year so students can earn credit for classes that they have failed.

Every year, approximately 80 Monroe Visual students gain credit in the evening using Pearson's NovaNet, clicking their way through algebra, chemistry, and U.S. history lessons and eventually taking a computer-based exam that assesses their progress. And 120 additional Monroe Visual students spend their summers with NovaNet and classroom instruction at summer school.

NovaNet replaces classroom teachers with classroom procters. NovaNet courses take between 30 and 50 hours to complete. With NovaNet, Monroe Visual can offer several different courses at the same time without having to worry about recruiting and paying several different teachers to cover different subjects in the evening or during the summer. Instead, the school only needs to pay a single teacher to act as a computer lab proctor.

"I’m paying one person $45 an hour. It really helps me fill in some holes. I used to pay four teachers," said Richard Massel, Principal at Monroe Visual.

NovaNet's list price is approximately $1,000 per licensed computer, but many schools receive the program at a discount. Monroe Visual paid Pearson $15,000 this year out of the school's budget for 30 NovaNet seats for the school year and the summer session.

Virtual education is gaining popularity across the country. Almost 2 million American students, from kindergartners to high school seniors, were enrolled in online courses in the 2007-2008 academic year. And approximately 175,000 American students were enrolled as full time students in online schools, according to a 2009 report published by a group of educators, policy representatives, and companies such as Pearson Education.

The U.S. market for online learning products, which includes programs for students and employees at companies, reached $16.7 billion in 2009 and is expected to grow to almost $24 billion by 2014, according a report published by Ambient Insight, a Portland-based market research firm.

Plato Learning, an education company that provides credit recovery software to New York City schools, charges between $175 and $1200 a student for the use of its programs, depending on the number of courses it licenses to a school, according to Mary Schneider, a spokesperson for Plato. According to Department of Education records, Plato Learning has an active two-year contract with the city schools worth almost $4.2 million.

Pearson's NovaNet software is being used at approximately 50 of New York City's traditional schools in addition to schools in the city's special education District 75, community colleges, and other institutions in New York.

Aventa credit recovery software has an even larger presence in New York City. According to a company spokesperson, Aventa is being used at 60 New York City schools and 40 additional schools have begun to use its services as a pilot program.

"New York is one of the booming states. We have different pilots going on in New York and a lot of the schools are responding positively," said Diana Barnes, a sales representative at Aventa, an online education company based in Portland, Oregon.

Aventa charges individual students $199 per course for its credit recovery materials. School contracts, however, are generally based on the amount of students that are going to be using the program at any given time.

Students run through virtual coursework at their own pace, spending an average of 35 hours per course, according to Aventa's website. Aventa students also have access to a hotline where they can receive extra help from a teacher 12 hours a day. Like many of its competitors, Aventa is not an accredited school and cannot issue credit for its courses.

"We only provide the curriculum. We just the send the final grade report to the school," said Jake Powell, an enrollment specialist at Aventa.

Proponents of virtual credit recovery argue that programs like NovaNet require students to engage in their coursework in a way that often does not happen in the traditional classroom setting.

"It allows students to take ownership of their learning. It may even set higher expectations than the teachers would set in class," said Joyelle Simmons, a 34-year old English teacher at Monroe Visual, who spends Monday and Wednesday evenings as a proctor at the evening credit recovery lab.

With NovaNet, students cannot move on to the next unit of a course until a lab proctor confirms that they have passed a unit exam.

"If they don't do the work in the program, they don't move forward," Simmons said.

Some argue that virtual credit recovery is a better use of school funds because it takes a different approach to the learning process rather than repeating the same classroom instruction where the student failed.

"I think the goal of the states is to get them through. They already paid for them to take the class one time. It is more cost effective than putting them in the exact same environment," said Allison Powell, vice president of iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a non-profit research and advocacy group for online learning companies and institutions.

But many students fail a class because they have been absent from school, often meaning that a virtual credit recovery course could be the first time they learn the material.

"Maybe the semester before they missed a couple of weeks. They may have other responsibilities," Simmons said, referring to the students who attend Monroe Visual's credit recovery lab.

Virtual credit recovery programs will repeatedly test students until they get the right answer, offering a tireless, never-ending version of classroom drill exercises.

"It offers something none of us are willing to do," Massel said, referring to the consistent repetition and drilling that a computer program can provide.

Just the same, if a student does not understand a concept after repeatedly failing a computer-based test, they may need human intervention, suggesting that there are limits to a strictly computer-based classroom environment.

"Schools where they are just throwing students in a lab, that’s probably not the best use of resources," Powell said.

Powell explained that online learning works best when it is combined with traditional classroom instruction. Powell said that iNACOL and the American Museum of National History have been working with a group of schools that recently received a $3 million grant from New York State to build an online science curriculum at 40 schools in Brooklyn starting next September.

Some question whether multinational education companies like Pearson can cater to individual students who need to build specific skills to prepare for statewide tests like the New York State Regents exams.

"It is almost like taking the textbook and putting it online. It’s not going to help them get through the state assessments that will get them to graduate," said Susan Palmer a social studies teacher at Akron High School in Akron, N.Y.

New York's state education department recently decided that students must pass the state's Regents exams to receive course credit, including credit earned through credit recovery. And most New York students will need to pass five of the state Regents exams to graduate from high school starting with the class of 2012.

Palmer said that Akron High School tested Pearson's NovaNet last summer with approximately 40 credit recovery students.

"I think I can do a better job. I think I did do a better job in my own online course than any publisher," Palmer said.

Last year, Palmer launched masteryreview.com and masterymaze.com to integrate online learning into courses she teaches to students who have failed the global studies and U.S. history state Regents exams. She has since expanded her websites and has used them in her traditional school-day classes this year.

While Palmer believes that individual teachers are the best candidates to develop online education components, as she has done, others like Allison Powell from iNACOL think that is unrealistic.

"A lot of the companies have more resources. Understanding content is different than putting it in the online environment," Powell said.

The fact that virtual credit recovery programs are based entirely on a student's engagement with the software program is both its strength and weakness.

"The failure of it all is when kids don’t show up or when the kid doesn’t have the reading comprehension to get through the course," Massel said.

And virtual credit recovery programs are certainly not immune to cheating, with students literally sitting at computers with access to the internet while they click through their coursework and take exams.

“There’s always going to be kids that make an effort to try to game the system or cheat,” said Lisa Jabarra, a product management and curriculum director at Pearson in charge of NovaNet. “But because of the way we do assessments, the questions are pulled from a pool and answers are randomized,” Jabarra said.

Credit recovery in New York City's public schools varies from school to school, with some programs requiring very little from students while others are very strict.

"It’s all over the place. There’s no consistency. A kid can do three papers and get credit at one school, and at another school, they have to do work," Massel said.

At the heart of the debate on credit recovery and the strengths and weaknesses of online credit recovery programs is the struggle to maintain and increase New York City's 63 percent graduation rate, a figure that includes students who graduated from high school in August after completing summer school.

"We're supposed to cajole people to give more passing grades," Massel said.

Scott Olster covered immigrant student issues for School Stories and was embedded in Urban Academy High School.