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Virtual learning can open a whole world of lessons

By THERESA WILLINGHAM
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


One of the great things about home learning is that it has never been easier to learn at home.

In the last few years, distance learning has really taken off, and there is no shortage of online learning opportunities for all ages and interests.

Distance learning can be as comprehensive as full degree-earning courses, or as specific as a short-term online collaborative project hosted by a university or college. And if you have teenagers, Florida has a gift for you: the Florida Virtual School, a free accredited public high school program voted the top distance learning program in the country.

Distance learning is exactly what it says -- learning provided in a home or classroom where instruction comes from somewhere else -- from across the city to across the world.

It can bring science and technology to remote areas, global learning opportunities to children who are homebound or live in impoverished areas, or enhance a regular classroom setting. All you need is a computer and a modem. If you don't have those, the library does, and librarians are happy to assist you.

Distance learning is flexible and adaptable, with sites accessible at any hour of any day. All it takes from the student is what learning always requires: interest and enthusiasm, and these come naturally with the wide selection of subjects and projects.

A first cousin of distance learning is "collaborative learning," where students at home or in a classroom can participate with other students from around the world in a specific project. One of the most popular collaborative learning program providers is Stevens University's Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education (CIESE), http://k12science.ati.stevens-tech.edu/currichome.html, based in New Jersey.

CIESE offers a series of free, ongoing programs for children of all ages.

The Square of Life project leads children in a comparative exploration of their back yards or schoolyards, letting them share their discoveries on a community discussion board with other children from around the world.

The Global Sun Temperature project incorporates science, math and geography in a study involving graphing daily temperatures and comparing the information with other students' results.

CIESE also conducts water sampling and other data collection projects. Its Web site is full of resources to help teachers, students and parents make the most of these great projects, and there is plenty of online support to help with technical issues.

Florida enjoys the distinction of having the finest distance learning program in the country. The Florida Virtual School is a fully accredited, free public educational resource for middle and high schoolers. Its comprehensive curriculum includes multiple levels of algebra, Latin, biology and history. The program is recommended for students interested in accelerated learning, the flexibility of a home based program, for dual enrolled students interested in combining secondary and primary education courses and homeschooled students.

Rosemary DuRocher, a guidance director with the virtual school, likes to help people understand the virtual learning experience by inviting them to imagine a traditional classroom. "The courses are housed on the Web," she explained.

"Picture in your mind that your child has entered a classroom that's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All their assignments, work and progress are posted on all four walls of the classroom. There are children all around them. A student can stay as long as he or she chooses, or leave as quickly as he chooses. There's no bell."

But there is supervision and guidance. The Florida Virtual School is a public school and all courses meet or exceed Sunshine State Standards. Each course has an assigned teacher, and each teacher has 120 to 150 students that they work with via email and telephone consultations. For the 2001/2002 school year, enrollment reached 8,500. About 60 percent of enrolled students attend public school, about 30 percent are homeschooled and the remainder are enrolled in non-public schools.

The flexibility and adaptability of the programs is obvious, DuRocher said. But there are other benefits, not the least of which is the enjoyment many parents and students find in learning together.

"One of the beauties, I think, of our programs is that the parents and students can work at home together," she said. "It allows a parent to really see how that child learns. For me, for truly involved parents, this is a great opportunity."

Distance learning is especially useful for children with learning differences, as class times are flexible and can be adapted to each child's learning style.

"If you have a child with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), you can work with that child as a tutor. Parents know how their children learn and can assist the child in learning to focus."

Children participate in the Florida Virtual School at varying levels of involvement, said DuRocher. Some take Web classes as part of their school day, using classroom computers. Others take classes in addition to regular school programs, and homeschoolers can make the Florida Virtual School a complete high school learning program.

Another benefit is the by-product of computer literacy. "They are so computer literate when they're done," DuRocher said. "Many become so fluent in Word and PowerPoint, they don't even know it."

For those concerned about isolation and kids spending yet even more time in front of a computer, DuRocher is reassuring. Virtual school is not a Game Boy. Students are actively engaged in learning, and many of the courses provide for considerable field work and field trips.

"Kids go out and see how these principles are applied in the real world," she said, with field trips to doctors, dentists and other places where they can experience their lessons..

-- Freelance writer Theresa Willingham homeschools her three children in Odessa.

To learn more

There are whole sites devoted to online learning resources.

Distance Learning on the Net, at http://www.hoyle.com/distance/define.htm, offers an excellent and comprehensive tutorial on distance learning (distance learning about distance learning!).

The Distance Learning Resource Center, http://www.dlrn.org/, is the home of the "Star Schools" program, one of the largest public-private distance learning partnerships in the world.

Another site, the Distance Learning Clearinghouse, at http://www.uwex.edu/disted/home.html, is managed by the University of Wisconsin Extension Service, and brings together resources and information from around the world.

Collaborative learning programs include the Global Schoolhouse, (http://gsh.lightspan.com/pr/index.html), the Houghton-Mifflin Project Center, (http://www.eduplace.com/projects/index.html) and Teleprojects (http://exchange.co-nect.net/Teleprojects/)

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