Eight students are studying college-level macroeconomics at South River High School in Edgewater -- and getting their guidance via computer from a teacher in Arizona.
In a sign of how the Internet is changing local education, the Anne Arundel County school system has joined a growing number of districts offering specialized courses online.
More than half of Maryland's school systems offer such state-approved instruction, with nearly 200 students enrolled and more expected this spring. Most students take Advanced Placement courses that might not generate enough demand for a regular class.
And the menu is scheduled to widen even more.
The state Department of Education plans to launch online classes in algebra, biology, government and English in the next year. These subjects are tested on the Maryland High School Assessments, which will be required for graduation as of next year.
A pilot of the algebra course is under way in one Baltimore County school and will be offered statewide in spring. The other courses should be available for students next fall, said Liz Glowa, the State Education Department's coordinator of Web-based learning projects.
This fall, twelve schools in six districts, including Baltimore City and Baltimore County, are piloting Internet-based coursework that can supplement classroom instruction in algebra. "The whole reason that the state became interested in working with this was to help students who are at risk of not passing the HSA," Glowa said.
Nationwide, 17 states offer online courses through their education departments, Glowa said. Many others either recognize online programs offered by private groups or school systems or fund school districts' efforts to develop courses.
In May 2002, Maryland lawmakers gave the State Education Department the authority to offer online courses and set standards and guidelines. This year, more than 20 classes are available through the Maryland Virtual Learning Opportunities program, including AP calculus, computer science, U.S. government, art history and statistics. Health, calculus and accounting are among non-AP courses.
Smaller school systems in western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore began to use online courses because they had fewer certified teachers for advanced subjects, said Sally Regnier, an instructional technology teacher specialist in Anne Arundel.
Supporters of the concept stress that online courses are more than just students sitting down with computers.
For example, instructors must be certified in the subject they are teaching and trained in how to teach online, Glowa said.
"It's a tool," she said. "There has to be a teacher and rigorous academic study on the other end of that tool."
Sam Steinhardt, executive director of Stanford University's Center for Innovations in Learning, said online courses have lower dropout rates if they allow for discussion among students and with the instructor. All of Maryland's approved online courses incorporate such interaction.
"Learning is a social activity ... in the sense of dialogue," he said. "Having dialogue enables you to handle material and understand material in a way that's more in-depth than if you're just doing it on your own."
At South River High, students can choose from 28 AP courses. Among them are the half-credit AP macroeconomics course offered through Seattle-based Apex Learning.
Gregg Good, instructor for the course, said he teaches about 50 students in three different online sections around the country. His own suburban school district, outside of Phoenix, has developed and marketed online courses for home-schooled students and others in alternative education.
"It's definitely a better option than a pencil-and-paper correspondence course," he said.
The eight macroeconomics students at South River make time for the course around sports practices, after-school jobs and other AP classes. Some take advantage of computers at school to print out notes or view lectures; most do their work primarily at home.
The students take notes on the lectures' animated graphics and illustrations to help them complete quizzes and other activities online. Students also are graded on their participation in a discussion forum and on tests that require longer written answers.
The South River students say they would recommend online courses to others, but not everyone is suited for such programs.
"If you're not a self-starter, then being in an online course is going to be very difficult to do," said James Hamilton, South River's principal.
Stefano Stratakis, a 17- year-old senior from Davidsonville, often finds himself working late at night. "It's like a huge struggle to compel myself to sit down," he said.
The students sometimes have technical difficulties as well as problems stemming from being so far from an instructor, said Marie E. Livingston, a South River teacher and a mentor to those in the course.
"Sometimes there isn't instant communication with the instructor. You can't raise your hand and get an answer," Livingston said.
Disparities in the availability of computers may restrict how widespread the classes become.
Glowa said school systems need to extend access by opening school libraries or computer labs before or after school, for example, or working with public libraries. Some communities may receive federal grants to increase access, she said.
And online courses aren't without cost for the school system. Regnier used state grants to pay for the pilot at South River -- from $15 a student for courses bought by the state to as much as $400 for classes taught by private companies.
Still, Arundel officials see a growing role for online courses and the flexibility they offer. Lynn Whittington, Anne Arundel's director of curriculum, would like to see such courses in all Anne Arundel high schools.
"We want consistency and equity in our schools," she said.