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Students enjoying online classes



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September 14, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry

Review Editor

Step into Lake Orion High School teacher Drew Towlerton's classroom midday and it is quickly apparent this is not a typical class.

The tenth- through twelfth-grade students enrolled in the Learning Options program are each working on a computer at their desks – some wireless net books and others traditional desktops – taking a variety of online classes. Some are retaking courses online to recover credits in classes that they may have previously struggled in, while others are actually accelerating their studies to graduate early.

After school, a growing number of students are taking classes that they cannot fit into their block schedules, to simply expand their knowledge and prepare for the future.

Towlerton has been part of the program since it launched six years ago and currently facilitates the online learning lab. He said this is what "anytime, anywhere learning" is all about.

"Look at the work world today," he said. "Many jobs are task oriented, allowing people to work at their own pace. You can't fit everyone's learning style into a box. Kids learn in different ways and online learning facilitates this."

The online learning program currently offers 40 high school courses through the classroom and after-school programs. Each course complies with the school's traditional curriculum and is approved by the state. Students can access a separate online program with nearly 200 additional courses, many of them designed to provide Advanced Placement (AP) credits toward college.

Last year, 51 students enrolled in 67 different courses offered through the after-school program. This past summer, a total of 97 students enrolled in 124 different classes. So far this school year, 41 students are enrolled in daily classes in the Learning Options program; three have signed up for after school online courses.

"It's nice to not be constrained by a ten-week period. Once a student finishes a segment, they can quickly move on to the next," said Towlerton, who noted many kids in the program work from home and other locations, accessing their coursework via the internet.

"I had a kid last year successfully complete an online course on his smart phone," he added.

Online courses, however, are not for everyone, said Heidi Kast, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment. "They are more for students who are motivated and disciplined and have learned to budget their time well."

Kast said a mentor teacher is assigned to each student who takes an online class.

When the program launched six years ago, Towlerton said the four teachers in the program did not want to overwhelm students, but they quickly learned online learning is second-nature to so many young people. They adapted to the environment quickly. Many of the students in the program are taking 2-3 classes at any given time, he added.

"Kids in this program assume a sense of ownership in their progress," the teacher said. "A number of them work over the weekend to just get ahead."

The assistant superintendent said more students undoubtedly could benefit from this approach to learning and admits the district should do a better job marketing it to the community.

"Parents don't fully understand the program, so they aren't necessarily proponents," she said. "But I think this will change. A lot of college classes are now offered this way and it's becoming more typical in high schools."

Kast also reiterated that the online learning strategies offered by the district today are directly aligned with Project 21, designed to facilitate learning in the wireless age where kids can learn outside the traditional classroom.

Towlerton said Learning Options courses taken during school hours are free of charge. Those taken after school cost $170 per class.

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