A new online, interactive high school curriculum developed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is now available to any learner with a web browser. If it proves successful, the program–called CLASS–might be a low-cost alternative for schools looking to supplement their offerings.

In a video conference last February, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., introduced the initiative via satellite to 200 Nebraska high school superintendents at a handful of locations across the state.

The Communications Learning and Assessment in a Student-centered System, or CLASS, is a distance learning curriculum originally designed by UNL as a paper-based correspondence system for families of the armed forces.

Seamless navigation

Through the program, CLASS courses will be delivered on the web both to individuals and public high schools that want to offer students an expanded curriculum but without having to hire more instructors.

As part of the conference last month, a demonstration of the program’s offerings was conducted by James Sherwood, director of UNL’s Department of Distance Education.

Sherwood said that two key considerations went into the program’s design.

First is the curriculum’s consistent and seamless navigation system.

“We call this the Nintendo effect,” Sherwood explained. “We want students to move through the design of these courses as instinctively as they move through a video game.”

The second thing developers wanted was to be able to offer a multimedia environment but with minimal download times. This was accomplished by having pictures, videos, sound, and interactive graphics cached on a CD-ROM, which requires less use of bandwidth.

“This is not a passive machine,” Kerrey said. “This is a tool.”

Kerrey said the initiative is meant to offer relief to school systems struggling with tight budgets. With total per-students cost coming in at less than $2,000, Kerrey said the online education costs less than a traditional education.

For now, 20 high school credit courses will be offered to school systems at a cost of $110 to $190 per unit, depending on whether schools provide their own staffing and testing or if they will have UNL provide these functions for them. Over 50 courses will be available by October 2001.

Course work covers a wide range of subject areas, including business, career planning, computers and technology, English, language, math, science, social studies, study skills, and English as a second language.

Certified instructors from UNL’s department of distance learning are available to teach the courses.

Students can communicate with teachers and fellow students via eMail and internet newsgroups, Sherwood said.

Independent Study High School

Beyond the program’s availability to public high schools, the online CLASS project is also offered to individuals as an accredited diploma program through the 70-year-old Independent Study High School (ISHS), part of UNL’s Department of Distance Education, Division of Continuing Studies.

In 1996, the department received $17.5 million in federal funding over a five-year period to develop an online curriculum for ISHS, which currently serves more than 15,000 students annually in 136 countries.

The program targets students seeking accelerated graduation, remediation, scheduling alternatives, summer school options, and college entrance preparation. The program also caters to homebound students.

Courses are designed to meet the needs of diverse populations, including both at-risk and gifted students, and tend to stress the development of life and workplace skills, citizenship responsibilities, and critical thinking. Courses are open to anyone with access to a computer (meeting certain minimum requirements) and the world wide web.

Individual enrollees pay close to $200 per course–plus fees and handling–which covers tuition, online instructional resources, and all teaching services.

Schools, learning centers, and home schools can purchase a site license to provide courses locally, offering credit and using local teachers.

Schools can use CLASS courses to supplement curriculum or to incorporate it into the classroom experience. The program offers a choice of navigational options, such as a Contents Viewer or site map, which lets both students and teachers see exactly where the student is, has been, and needs to go within an individual course. In addition to the multimedia CD-ROM, students are provided access to other resources to help them in their studies, including digital libraries from national, historic, scientific, and research centers around the world.

The ISHS is the only university-based, fully accredited, independent-study high school in the country. The program is accredited by the Nebraska Department of Education and the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.