New effort to reinvent online learning as a flexible option
For years, online learning in elementary and secondary schools has largely been an all-or-nothing option, with students choosing between traditional full-time classroom learning or one-time online learning. full. The two could intersect, with in-person students accessing a growing list of additional online resources and e-students obtaining in-person opportunities, but the bulk of the choice was one or the other.
A new system developed in the Harrisburg area and growing locally seeks to change this, providing more flexibility for students not only to mix online and in-person courses, but even to switch between them if circumstances require it.
It started out as the Capital Area Online Learning Association – CAOLA, for short – but has grown, with a similar association taking root in Lucerne and Lackawanna counties. And if it’s as flexible and efficient as proponents say it could be the future of K-12 education.
âThe difference between us and e-schools is that you can work full-time or part-time,â explained Aaron Clarke, e-learning account manager at CAOLA. âStudents always graduate from the school district. Flexibility is what makes it unique.
An example: A student might need an afternoon away from the high school classroom because they are taking a dual enrollment course with a local college, but that would mean missing a required high school class. With the CAOLA e-learning method, the student can still take the required high school courses online when they wish, attend the college course and attend the regular high school sessions in person for the rest of the school day.
âA lot of my districts combine cybernetic offerings with classroom offerings,â noted Annie Moran, who helps bring the CAOLA system to the Kingston-based Alfalfa mid-level unit. The LIU serves school districts in Luzerne and Wyoming counties, offering a wide range of services. The Northeast Educational Intermediate Unit (NEIU) based in Archbald also provides services in Lackawanna County and surrounding areas.
âWe have put these options in place to allow districts to use them as they see fit,â said Anthony Grieco, executive director of LIU. âWe have districts that use our service exclusively as a cyber option and we also have districts that use our services for singleton-type things like credit collection or summer school. “
Crestwood School District Superintendent Robert Mehalick said his district had used the offers for high school credit clawback, most important this summer after frequent disruptions last school year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The system, both in the Harrisburg area and locally, is intended to allow school districts to tailor offers to their situations. âA district can use its own teachers to implement the online courses,â Clarke said, adding that out-of-district teachers are also available. âWe do what the neighborhood wants. “
Moran offered another example of the flexibility built into the system: High school students who may have landed a daytime job during the summer “and weren’t ready to quit” could learn online in the evenings while retaining their jobs.
âStudents can take classes on their own schedules at their own pace,â Clarke said. And the system offers âdynamic and ready-to-use learning programsâ.
This includes helping young students in Grades 7 and 8 to choose a career path, as well as vocational training for older students.
The system also offers the option of taking courses in languages ââthat a district may not be able to offer due to low student interest. Alexander Konsur of NEIU noted that American Sign Language courses – developed by deaf educators – have become popular with some students “just because they can take them.”
Moran pointed to a language that has largely disappeared in high school but still arouses interest once students find out there is an online option: CAOLA’s flexible online offerings and its regional version, Northeastern Online Learning Academy.
One of the advantages of the system is the âextended electivesâ options. “Students have taken courses in forensics, sociology, business math for a business career and some options they may find more interesting (then the district offers) for English course credits,” said Konsur.
And while some courses can still benefit from hands-on, in-person experience, such as science labs, the field of virtual learning has improved dramatically in this area. âWe have the 3D modeling,â Moran said. âWe have virtual labs which are phenomenal. In fact, she suggests, a good thing coming out of the whole pandemic could be the development of e-learning techniques. âIt really pushed us into the future.
The system can be “much more cost effective” than other online learning options, “Konsur said, as a district pays for the service on a” per course, per student “basis.
And a district can choose to align online courses with its own classroom sessions or make the online option stand-alone. Class alignment can allow a student to go online for only a week or two if something happens that prevents them from attending in person, and then smoothly return to the classroom.
At CAOLA, Clarke said, there are hundreds of offers and multiple options for many of them. âWe have 5 different suppliers. So a district might have six or seven options for a fourth grade English course, say. “
The system was used this summer locally to help students “get credit,” Moran said. The pandemic may have left students short of some required coursework, but they made up for it online.
If expansion is a measure of success, CAOLA scores.
Clarke noted that it started in 2009 by offering online options to 13 mid-unit districts in the Capital Region, but has expanded to serve 150 school districts in 10 mid-unit units.
âAnd we continue to grow,â he said.