Online Courses Expand Options for Students
When Gregor McGee of Hickory wanted to double up on his math courses during high school, he didn't go the traditional route. Instead, he enrolled in online courses through N.C. Virtual Public School, a program that offers online courses to middle and high school students throughout the state via the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
"When NCVPS started in 2007, the main goal was for students — regardless of zip code — to have access to high quality classes," says Tracy Weeks, chief academic and digital learning officer for NCDPI. "It has really opened up options for students, and equipped traditional schools with the opportunity to expand class choices offered to students," she says.
Online courses through NCVPS are becoming more common for students throughout North Carolina. Enrollment has grown to more than 52,000 students representing all 115 North Carolina school districts since the program began in 2007. NCVPS offers more than 150 courses ranging from Arabic and Japanese to calculus and personal finance. Students can also choose from advanced placement offerings.
The increase in enrollment has expanded the course catalog for all North Carolina schools, allowing students to take classes they need due to schedule conflicts or for credit recovery, or are interested in taking just for curiosity's sake — even if the classes are not offered in their schools.
For McGee, the online classes were a great benefit since his small school offered limited resources. He took everything from AP Music Theory and AP Accounting to AP Advanced Functions and AP Human Geography.
"My school didn't offer some of the classes, but I wanted to learn the material and challenge myself because the courses sounded interesting," he said. In addition, he was able to take some of his required courses online that didn't fit into his school schedule.
When NCVPS was first being developed, Weeks said she and the other staff members didn't think schools in the larger zip codes would have as big of a need for the classes, but have found them to have the largest enrollment because they are better able to meet the needs of all students. At Enloe High School in Raleigh, for example, there is a computer lab dedicated to online courses that is monitored by a teacher. One student may be taking AP Geography, while the student next to him is taking Math 2.
While NCVPS teachers don't see their students in a classroom every day, their teacher-student relationships are strong. Teachers are required to regularly communicate with the students and parents, plus many send out newsletters or other forms of communication to maintain relationships and encourage those students who are struggling.
All NCVPS teachers have a current North Carolina teaching certificate, and taught a minimum of three years in a classroom. In addition, teachers are required to take a teacher induction semester that provides training and ensures they understand the requirements and time involved. On average, a NCVPS teacher will spend 10 hours a week on each class he or she teaches.
Statewide connectivity can be an issue, according to Eliz Colbert, executive director of NCVPS. Students and schools must be willing to download programs, such as a media player and Java, to ensure that the required programs run correctly. In addition, some schools in rural areas don't have current versions of Windows, which can cause glitches. To avoid these issues, Colbert advises students to refer to the technology requirements on the NCVPS website prior to enrolling in a class. NCVPS also has a team that addresses technology issues.
For McGee, the main challenge when taking an online course is being responsible and keeping up with the classwork and assignments. "No one is there pushing you like in the classroom setting," he says. "So you have to learn to motivate yourself."
As NCVPS continues to expand, more and more students will be able to take advantage of all it offers.
"It is now a part of schools, the enrollment process, and how schools help kids plan," Weeks says. "It is a regular part of the tool box, not an exception to the rule." For more information, visit ncvps.org.
Sidebar: Access for All
In addition to all North Carolina public schools, NCVPS is open to private schools, homeschools, students who are homebound with illnesses and students who have different life schedules due to extracurricular activities, such as ballet or racing cars. NCVPS has also opened up doors for students with special needs through the Occupational Courses Study Blended Learning Program.
Maria Topliff of Jacksonville, who teaches English 2 to 10th grade students in the OCS Blended Learning Program through NCVPS, says this combined classroom/online learning method is successful because student achievement is forefront. Students have a face-to-face teacher in the classroom and take specific courses online through NCVPS.
Topliff says she is able to create customized lesson plans to make sure the students connect with her and understand the concepts.
"It has been amazing to see the progress the students have made," Topliff says. "They are passing tests, and are really engaged."
For students who need extra support, NCVPS offers these resources to ensure that students succeed.
• Quick Questions, available through Blackboard, provide quick answers to simple questions.
• Peer Tutors help students understand material for specific subjects.
• Virtual Buddies are paired with students who need encouragement and assistance in areas such as time management.
• The TutorTalk Blog provides information on topics ranging from study tips to advice on applying to college.
• Language coaches are offered to students taking more complicated languages, like Japanese or Chinese. The coaches talk to the students over the phone to teach accuracy in pronouncing the language, and to work on subtleties of the language.
Michele Jonczak, a freelance writer from Raleigh, is a mother of two boys, ages 4 and 2, and a girl, 10 months old.