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Online Learning Spreads Across Private School Network

A digital learning network expands student course options to subjects including advanced computer programming.

by Cindy Huang, The Capital, Annapolis, Md. / April 21, 2016

(TNS) — Physics teacher Benjamin Taylor moved the camera toward a circular magnet as his students from five states used video conference software to watch the magnet pick up iron.

"What makes magnetism weird?" he said.

"It's kind of an invisible thing," one student responded via video.

His voice projected through a microphone from a private school in Connecticut to a basement classroom at Severn School in Severna Park.

Alanna Sokoloff, a senior at Severn School, watched the lesson that was displayed across two screens — one with a digital white board and another with Taylor and her classmates.

A device that controlled her microphone, camera and the volume of the screens sat on one of the two tables in the classroom.

Sokoloff is enrolled in a Malone Schools Online Network class, a group of 19 private schools across the country that offer live digital classes.

The Malone Family Foundation, a group that funds scholarships for 50 private schools, including Severn, started the program.

In 2013, the organization invited schools to participate in a digital learning network modeled after the Stanford Online High School, a selective online school in California.

Doug Lagarde, the headmaster of Severn School, said the school joined two years ago to expand its courses and give students online academic experiences that closely resemble the traditional classroom.

This school year, 12 students signed up for digital classes such as advanced computer programming, abstract math and the American food system.

Teachers at the private school in Severna Park don't lead any of the classes in the program this year, but will teach two classes next year.

The selective program looks for disciplined, self-motivated students, said the Malone Schools Online Network's incoming executive director, Claire Goldsmith.

She said the key goal of the program is building strong relationships between students and teachers.

"Most online learning is quite disconnected, " she said. "Learning happens through interactions, relationships ... and working with a teacher who knows you."

The classes focus on live discussions during class and group projects.

She said the geographical diversity in the classroom enriches learning through new ideas, perspectives and experiences. In one class, the American food system, students from the East Coast may know more about seafood, and students from the Midwest may have more knowledge of farming.

Over the past few years, Goldsmith said the organization and schools improved on the technology for better sound, connectivity and web applications.

"If you're doing it right, the technology sort of disappears," she said.

And as the organization works to grow, she hopes other schools will adopt similar programs.

"We're demonstrating what is possible, so we hope to have a wide impact," she said.

Sokoloff's class is similar to traditional classrooms. Students raise their hands to ask questions. Taylor draws colorful diagrams on a separate projected screen to illustrate scientific concepts to students.

Taylor, a physics teacher at the Hopkins School in Connecticut, said as online learning becomes more personal, traditional classrooms are increasingly digital.

Inside the physical classroom, assignments are sent and collected, and sometimes monitored, online.

And like a traditional class, some students in the digital class are eager to answer questions and share ideas while others listen.

Taylor, in his second year in the online program, said he has seen his students from different states in his digital class get together.

But the students can do things they can't in a traditional classroom, such as mute themselves from the class, review videos of all classes and change the volume of the instruction.

He said repairing relationships is more challenging in the digital classroom because he can't talk to students in the cafeteria or hallways.

"If you don't establish a good relationship with the kid, it's easy for them to write you off as a teacher," he said.

Because he teaches a selective class in a consortium of reputable private schools, he scarcely encounters disengaged or misbehaved students.

"Every once in a while I have kids who aren't paying attention," he said. "It's not that different than a regular class."

For a group project, Sokoloff is working with a student who lives in Orlando, Florida. They chat online and use Google Drive, an online application, to share information. And they video chat each other.

Issac Huang, also a Severn senior, is enrolled in a multivariable calculus.

He said he follows his digital classmates — who live in states as far away as California — on social media and talk about math on discussion boards. They also use instant messaging applications to chat about life.

"We go off topic and make fun of each other," he said.

On a Tuesday afternoon, Sokoloff started her 2:30 class by turning on the TVs, dialing a number and entering a code.

On the top left screen, two students appeared in a lecture hall in New York. Next to them, a student from Texas in a maroon MIT sweatshirt (an acronym for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology); then two students from Mississippi. Three students from Texas are on the bottom left screen.

The teacher is in the fifth screen, bottom right.

Sokoloff and Huang pointed out a student who was recently accepted into MIT, another who's known for being talkative and going off topic.

"He's always saying random stuff," Sokoloff said.

Sokoloff knows the students well, which can be intimidating.

"Everyone is super smart and passionate," she said.

©2016 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. 

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