Virtual classes virtually the same

Teachers praise Web conferences

January 22, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

As the 11th-grader tried to solve the algebra problem posted on the board, the teacher watched intently and occasionally chimed in with suggestions. When the boy seemed stumped, the teacher solicited help from a classmate.

Eventually, the right answer became obvious.

"Now check your work on your calculator," Linda Novak instructed the students in her college algebra course. "Your skills are getting good."

The student-teacher exchange might seem typical, but at the Baltimore County school system's Home and Hospital Center in Bare Hills, the encounters occur by phone - and over the Internet.

The center's eight full-time teachers and dozens of part-timers interact with students using a Web site and online whiteboard, which serves in the place of the traditional classroom chalkboard, to lead classes such as history, algebra and physics. These Web conferences are designed to augment traditional teleconferencing and home visits.

The center enrolls students who are expected to be out of school for at least four weeks because of medical conditions, such as cancer, pregnancy, surgery, emotional illnesses or injuries. Some students who have been expelled or administratively transferred from their home schools also take courses through the center.

School administrators and teachers point out that because they are teaching real-time Web-conferencing, the homebound students' experiences are similar to what they would have in a regular classroom.

Teachers at the center said they think Baltimore County is the only Maryland school system using the technology for its home and hospital program. A spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education said that while he could not confirm that, the use of Web-conferencing for such programs is a fairly recent development and is not in wide use.

It is not video-conferencing. The students and teachers do not see one another. But through computer networks they work together on a virtual blackboard.

"This is not distance learning," said teacher JoAnna Allen, referring to online courses in which teachers leave work for students to pick up. "We're in real time online with them."

Allen, who began working at the center in 1984, when home visits and telephone conference calls were the only options, adds that it is not an impediment that the students and teachers are not face to face. "With Web-conferencing, we're working with their minds," she said.

The center has been using Web-conferencing for about four years, according to Vicky Ciulla, the school system's coordinator of alternative education programs, summer school and dropout prevention.

"We're trying to make it visual and audio for as many kids as possible," said Ciulla, a former principal at the Home and Hospital Center. She said the center supplies computers to students who need them.

The center enrolled about 2,300 students during the course of the 2005-2006 school year, which was a 20 percent increase over the 2004-2005 school year, Ciulla said.

Classes are offered from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with Friday reserved for teachers to make home visits.

"The home visits are still important because it's good to put a face with a name," Allen said. "It also gives me a sense of what the student's circumstances are and how that might be affecting his or her school work."

A staff of part-time drivers deliver books, speaker phones, graphing calculators and other supplies for the classes.

Students then call into the phone system on a designated line and log onto their computers according to their class schedule. Individual classes are available online only during the set time, such as 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Thursday for college algebra. The Web-based program shuts down a class at the precise time that the course is scheduled to end for that day to make room on the server for other classes.

Allen and other teachers said the Web-conferencing technology has greatly improved their ability to clearly communicate with students, but some kinks are inevitable.

For instance, if a student is without a computer, the teacher will dictate problems and solutions that are being posted on the whiteboard so the student can keep up with the class.

Teachers said another challenge is that students drop in and out of the program at various points or have been out of school for an extended time before being enrolled at the center, which means classes invariably have students who are at different ability levels.

"Our student population is always changing, which makes this very challenging," said Novak.

To deal with that problem, teachers look for opportunities to group students with like knowledge of a given subject for class activities.

Student Josh Williams, a ninth-grader at Western School of Technology in Catonsville, said that when he began taking courses at the center in late November, he was ahead of the geometry class that Allen teaches, but he has benefited from reviewing some of the principles.

"With the Web-conferencing, I can draw on the whiteboard, and she can show me what I'm doing wrong," Williams said last week as he sat in front of a laptop while Allen tutored him in geometry in the dining room of his family's Randallstown home.

Williams, who has been in a wheelchair since he was 4 and recently underwent surgery for scoliosis, isn't sure when his doctor will allow him to return to his regular school. In the meantime, he is taking five courses through the center, including government, English, biology and technology.

When his computer wasn't working one day this week, he was limited to teleconferencing, which he said makes it more difficult to grasp new concepts because he can't see what the teacher is doing.

Biology teacher Lawrence Austen said he has seen once-struggling students excel with the aid of Web-conferencing.

"They tell me they're understanding the work better than ever before," he said.

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