Some driver education students in Buhler, Kan., are learning to drive by using the information superhighway. Instead of getting right behind the wheel of a car, they’re getting started behind a computer keyboard.

Technology isn’t new to driver education programs; for years, driving simulators have helped prepare students in some school districts for unexpected situations before they got out on the road. But the Buhler Unified School District (BUSD) recently started the state’s first online driver education program, according to Stefani Curchy, assistant principal for Buhler High School and a driving instructor who helped create the program.

The program allows students to study the textbook at home and take quizzes at any computer with internet access. Students piloting the program at Buhler High School this past spring were still required to show up for a final exam and take road-driving lessons, but the rest of the work could be done anytime within a four-week period.

Moving the course online offers flexibility for students while saving schools money, Curchy said. Currently, most Kansas school districts only offer driver education programs during the summer.

The idea became a reality during the 2000-2001 school year, as driver education teachers developed a program that fulfilled all state requirements. While there were a few kinks to work out when 17 students went through the program in April, two subsequent programs in May went smoothly, Curchy said.

“We felt virtual learning would work well, even though it’s not face-to-face contact,” Curchy said. “Parents and students said they liked the online system and would rather [take the course via the internet] than sit in a lecture.”

Instructors want to offer the program year-round and eventually expand the program to other school districts.

“We will start it up again in the fall for students who come of age during the school year and want to take it at that time,” said Superintendent David Brax. “We have also talked about the possibility of contracting with other districts, in which we would provide the online course work and they would do the driving [portion].”

“To my knowledge, I don’t think there are other states doing this,” Curchy said. “A national speaker for driver education recently told a group of us there was nothing like this yet, but it’s coming soon.”

Students receive a textbook at the start of class and can read chapters and take the 16 chapter quizzes at their own pace. When they get 80 percent or above on a quiz, they move forward in the program.

If a student is having trouble on a quiz, an instructor can eMail or call the student. The student then has another opportunity to pass the quiz.

“While it’s not face to face, we still contact [students] and eMail them,” Curchy said. “Also, most of the learning still takes place in the car, which is similar to any other driver education program.”

Joan Peterson, director for driver education at the Kansas Department of Education and a member of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, has some doubts about whether online driver education is a suitable alternative to traditional in-class learning.

“I think there is a lot missing from the online course as far as personal experiences from the teacher and guest speakers like the police department, motorcycle safety, and ex-students,” she said. “I really think that was beneficial. That is all gone in this type of a format, and I wish it wasn’t.”

Another drawback, according to Peterson, involves state regulations about who teaches driver education. Instructors must be certified and endorsed to teach the course.

“I’m afraid now everyone is going to jump in and say, ‘I have a program.’ You just can’t be sure who is delivering the program,” Peterson said. “An [online] curriculum developed in California may not apply to the regulations in Kansas.”

Furthermore, the online version of driver education makes it impossible to tell if students are really doing the work themselves. “The only test they do with any kind of supervision is the final exam,” she explained. “Anyone could be helping when they do these quizzes at home.”

That’s why Peterson compares the class to a “quiz-out,” meaning that the only true determination of competency takes place at the instructor-led final exam.

“It could be life-saving to know this stuff, and you know that a comprehensive final cannot cover everything,” she said.

“Kids and parents are definitely on the honor system,” acknowledged Curchy. To help ensure honesty, the district sent out forms to parents asking them to sign a statement saying that their child—and no one else—was the one taking the tests.

Peterson said there are also some practical issues that may inhibit widespread acceptance of online driver education.

“Actually, I don’t know of many programs like this, and there is a good reason why,” she said. “The fact is that you cannot guarantee who is actually doing the work.” That is particularly a problem in Kansas, where schools are reimbursed for successful driver education students based on the results of a post-class audit.

“The auditor has to be able to verify that kids have done the work themselves, and the way it normally works is that the auditors actually look at the graded papers teachers have kept … to make sure the schools are reporting accurately,” she said. With online classes, there would be no hard copies of graded work.

That was all worked out during the planning phase, according to BUSD officials.

“After talking to the auditors and the [Department of Motor Vehicles], we decided that the kids would take the 16 chapter tests online. At the end of the four-week class, they take an in-class exam, and that’s the one the auditors look at,” said Curchy.

Despite her reservations, Peterson admits that the online class allows for more flexible scheduling and cost-savings, because one teacher can handle more online students than in-class students.

Special times were arranged in computer labs at both Buhler High School and Prairie Hills Middle School for students who wished to complete their work at school, said district officials.

Brax said he’d been considering offering driver’s education online for a while and felt it would be a success, given the changing times and improved technology.

“Virtual technology is utilized more and more, and we thought going online was a natural fit,” he said. “This is a just a different delivery service to accommodate student needs.”

Curchy says the district plans to deliver both traditional and online driver education, at least for the next couple years.

“The fact that [BUSD is] offering it both ways is a good thing,” said Peterson. “I don’t think an only online course would benefit all students.”

Links:

Buhler Unified School District
http://buhler.usd313.k12.ks.us

American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association
http://adtsea.iup.edu