Innovative eClasses go online with educational opportunities

As West classrooms attempt to move into the 21st century, they are beginning to find that true adaptation comes not from adding technology to its walls, but by moving outside of the traditional stone and mortar foundation altogether. Since 2013, the Oshkosh Area School District has offered its high school students a more flexible, variant form of education in the most contemporary medium: the Internet. The Oshkosh eAcademy, a branch of the Wisconsin eSchool Network has been gaining ground since its debut in the 2012-2013 school year.

“There are over 32 districts that are all part of this collaborative,” said Lisa Lieder, a professional staff member at Central Office. “And we’re all working to give districts and students more opportunities. That being said, what this allows us to do, being a partner in this program, we are able to have local control. So we can decide what classes we’re giving our students online and what teachers we’re using. So that’s really the beauty of it. We can adapt it to our student’s needs.”

Myriad reasons exist for wishing to take an online course instead of sitting at a typical desk in the traditional classroom. These include a greater amount of freedom regarding the time of “class,” which may come in handy for those with physical disabilities or mental handicaps who work more comfortably from home and at a time of their choice. Other practical reasons for the online courses persist as well.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of enrichment; they’re looking to get ahead so they can take more Youth Options or CAPP classes,” said Lieder. “It could be because maybe due to a physical issue or mental health issue, they have a flexible schedule, or they just need to have a flexible schedule so they can do curriculum outside of the school day. So that really kind of meets some of those needs by having online classes. There are students that do very well in the traditional classroom. There are students that tend to like more of an online atmosphere better.”

Many critics of the online system may connect this “atmosphere” with a connotation of relaxed rigor and eased expectations. However, the online classes mirror their classroom equivalent, complete with a syllabus, different units, assignments with due dates, and a once-a-unit oral assessment. Midterms and final exams are proctored at the school in order to ensure academic integrity. And the stereotype that communication lacks between online teachers and their students is far from fulfilled.

“I believe that there is a stereotype that online teachers and students don’t communicate as much as a traditional classroom,” said Lieder. “I think that that again depends upon the student. Because I think that you could be a student that sat in a classroom and never raised your hand all year, or you could be a student that maybe emailed your online teacher 250 times. So again, it just depends upon your own preferences and needs as well too.”

Common communication channels include email, Skype, phone, and even text. Some classes may even include a discussion board, involving students from every corner of Wisconsin. However, one of the main concerns of the school district includes maintaining a heavy dose of coordination with local faculty.

“We’ve had quite a bit of interest of teachers as far as looking at online options and opportunities,” said Lieder. “And I think sometimes online learning is seen as a threat to students or maybe to staff. However, again the beauty of online, the goal is to have our teachers teaching our students. Let’s say that Omro says, ‘We can’t offer English 4 anymore, so do you have a teacher that can do it?’ So it even pulls students into our district sometimes as well, so it even helps with keeping our staff. We want our quality staff because we have very qualified staff here in Oshkosh. So we want to keep them in our district and not elsewhere.”

As the district moves into the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, they hope to obtain an online curriculum for every subject taught at the high school. As of now, both practical classes such as English, and more elective-based classes such as “Forensic Science” are prevalent among the 234 current students. And although the system does add an extra cost to the district’s bill, as more teachers and students sign up to participate the classes will become cheaper per student enrolled. One aspect that may be persuading students against the online option is the “E” added in front of their course selection on their transcript. However, as Lieder states, many colleges view the eAcademy as an advantage, not the sign of a slacker.

“Colleges are looking for self-directed students, so we do tell someone that if you take a course online, colleges are going to see that and say, ‘oh they’ve done an online class,’” she said. “Some districts are going so far as to implement even an online requirement for graduation. Oshkosh is not looking at that yet, but other districts are doing that, and even colleges are looking at that too. As far as a transcript goes, you receive the same amount of class credit, and you also receive a letter grade.”

It remains to be seen just how involved students become in online learning. However, no matter the amount of interaction, Lieder remains persistent that both faculty and students will continue to be involved in any educational advances.

“We have wonderful teachers in our district and online program,” she said. “We want to continue to collaborate with all of our teachers and continue to provide students with as many opportunities as we can.”