Except in the occasional suburban tomato patch, Except in the occasional suburban tomato patch, nobody will be harvesting the crops in Fairfax County, Va., this summer. Even so, some 50 students in the highly regarded suburban Washington, D.C., school division will use education’s time-honored, farming-inspired hiatus to reap the benefits of a web-based Algebra 1 class.

Beginning July 9, Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS)—the twelfth largest district in the country—will enroll two classes of up to 25 high school students each in a web-based summer school Algebra 1 class. Instructional material for the online class will be provided by class.com.

“We have a variety of students who can’t go to summer school for certain reasons; they need to watch their siblings or do other activities,” said Mike Kowalski, coordinator of eLearning for the school system.

The kids who will participate in this program are all looking to get ahead, explained Kowalski, rather than trying to re-take a class they failed.

A ‘gatekeeper’ subject

Algebra is a “gatekeeper subject,” said Lincoln, Nebraska-based class.com’s president, Katherine Endacott. “That’s why [FCPS is] focusing on Algebra 1; they want to make sure that kids have the skills they need to be successful in higher mathematics.”

“We have a large number of kids who transfer into the district every year, and Algebra 1 is an eighth grade course. In high school, we usually move them into geometry,” said Kowalski.

The online course will allow transfer students who need Algebra 1 to take the prerequisite over the summer rather than starting the new school year with a deficit.

Students will learn from home, but they’ll have periodic face-to-face meetings—an initial orientation, one mid-course meeting, and an on-site state Standards of Learning test at the end of the course.

Class.com’s curriculum—made accessible through a web site powered by Blackboard.com of Washington, D.C.—allows kids to cut and paste their notes, chat with peers and teachers, and communicate via eMail.

Students are able to complete and submit quizzes and homework online and receive immediate feedback.

The obvious benefits for transfer students notwithstanding, school and company officials have reservations about offering web-based summer school classes to kids who have not been successful in their traditional classes.

“Offering [online classes] as a remediation option is an interesting challenge—primarily because [summer school] is only a five- to six-week time frame,” said Kowalski. “We are definitely concerned about offering a fundamental class in such a short amount of time.”

Endacott agreed, explaining that while some students learn best in a group setting, others work well when they are challenged individually. “We’ve found that class.com works best with the kids who need individual challenges,” she said.

Kowalski acknowledged that kids re-taking a class in summer school might lack motivation to begin with. On the other hand, he said, sometimes the fear of not graduating on time can provide the necessary motivation for kids.

Although students would have to be screened to ensure suitability, Kowalski said FCPS someday might consider offering online classes to kids who failed the first time around.

A boon for teachers?

Web-enabled summer school might also be a boon for teachers, many of whom would rather not spend their summers in the same classrooms they occupy during the school year.

Instructors will have the option of teaching from their homes or from a lab set up at a district building. The benefit of teaching from a school building is the ability to access the internet on the district’s zippy T1 connection, explained Kowalski.

“Right now this gives teachers a little more flexibility in their time frame,” he said. “They can arrange their schedules so they can work the hours they want.”

Online curricula can also make it easier to offer more sections of summer classes, or classes that are longer in duration, Kowalski said. Currently FCPS summer school classes are offered from July 9 to August 9.

One challenge schools face with traditional summer school is the cost of keeping a building open with a skeletal staff, said Endacott. Web-based eLearning might be the solution, she said.

“We usually start summer school in July due to building formalities, but this would reduce those complications,” said Kowalski. “Basically, you don’t have to kick out the original school to do online summer school.”

Teachers also benefit from the ability to correlate time on task with performance by looking at online records and seeing where a student spends the most time, said company officials.

For lower income students, the costs of online learning might be prohibitive. At FCPS, for instance, the online Algebra class is considered a pilot. As a result, students must provide their own computers and internet access.

FCPS does not currently have a way to provide discounted or free hardware and internet access to disadvantaged students, but Kowalski said school officials are actively looking for ways to provide this access. During the school year, for instance, public libraries have already opened their doors to student computing.

Class.com posts its online classes using a web site developed and operated by Blackboard.com. According to the district, Blackboard’s minimum requirements are a Pentium processor with Windows 95 or higher or a Macintosh PowerPC, Netscape 5.0 or higher, a CD-ROM, 64 megabytes of RAM, a modem, a sound card, and speakers.

FCPS also charges a $580 fee for in-county high school students that take summer school courses. That fee is doubled for out-of-county residents. Students from low-income families must pay anywhere from half to 10 percent of the total fee, depending on the level of need.

“The parents understand this, and it’s the same for all our summer classes” said Kowalski. “If they are interested they know they must meet the requirements.”

Teachers are currently undergoing a week of training on how to deliver the online course.

“We train the teachers in the software, and we have an implementation workshop where we show them best practices and successful ideas,” said Endacott.

But successful adoption involves tailoring the solution to fit individual needs, she said. The courses are designed to meet local standards, but there are always schools that want to customize. Fairfax County teachers will be able to build and direct kids to custom content modules associated with the class.com courses.

FCPS’ contract provides for up to five hundred students to take class.com courses over the next twelve months.

Class.com was launched two years ago as a for-profit spin-off of the University of Nebraska’s Independent Study High School. A $17.5 million federal research and development grant funded the design of class.com’s initial courses.

So far, more than 150 individual schools, districts, statewide initiatives, and families in states including Michigan, Kansas, Virginia, Illinois, Washington, and Texas have more than 6,000 students currently enrolled in class.com offerings.

Links:

Fairfax County Public Schools
http://www.fcps.edu

class.com
http://www.class.com

Blackboard.com
http://www.blackboard.com