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Pennsylvania Group Sees Hybrid Learning as Future of K-12

The Capital Area Online Learning Association and its system for enrolling students in full-time or part-time classes online is taking off in Pennsylvania, offering more electives and career pathways programs.

online learning
(TNS) — For years, online learning in elementary and high schools has been largely an all-or-nothing option, with students choosing between full-time traditional learning in a classroom or full-time online learning. The two could cross paths, with in-person students accessing a growing list of supplemental online resources and cyber students getting some in-person opportunities, but the bulk of choice was one or the other.

A new system developed in the Harrisburg area and growing locally is looking to change that, giving greater flexibility for students to not only mix online and in-person lessons, but to even switch from one to the other if circumstances require it.

It started as the Capital Area Online Learning Association — CAOLA, for short — but has been expanding, with a similar association taking root in in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. And if it is as flexible and effective as supporters say, it could be the future of K-12 education.

"The difference between us and cyber schools is you can go full-time or part time," explained Aaron Clarke, an online learning account manager at CAOLA. "Students still graduate with the school district diploma. Flexibility is what makes this unique."

One example: A student may need an afternoon out of the high school classroom because he or she is taking a dual-enrollment course with a local college, but that would mean missing a needed high school course. With the CAOLA method of online learning, the student can still get the required high school lessons online when convenient, attend the college course, and complete the regular in-person high school sessions the rest of the school day.

"A lot of my districts match up the cyber offerings with the classroom offerings," noted Annie Moran, who is helping bring the CAOLA system to the Luzerne Intermediate Unit based in Kingston. The LIU serves school districts in Luzerne and Wyoming counties, providing a wide range of services. The Northeast Educational Intermediate Unit (NEIU) based in Archbald is similarly offering the services in Lackawanna County and neighboring areas.

"We have set up these options to allow for districts to use as they see fit," LIU Executive Director Anthony Grieco said. " We have districts that use our service exclusively as their cyber option and we also have districts that use our services for singleton type things like credit recovery or Summer school."

Crestwood School District Superintendent Robert Mehalick said his district has used the offerings for high school credit recovery, more important this summer following the frequent disruption of last school year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The system, both in the Harrisburg region and locally, is intended to allow school districts to tailor offerings to their situations. "A district can use their own teachers to implement the online courses," Clarke said, adding that non-district teachers are available as well. "We do whatever the district wants."

Moran offered another example of the flexibility built into the system: High school students who may have landed a day job during the summer "and weren't willing to give that up," could learn online in the evening while keeping the job.

"Students can take the courses based on their own schedules at their own pace," Clarke said. And the system offers "dynamic learning, career ready programs."

That includes helping younger students in grades 7 and 8 choose a career path, as well as career training for older students.

The system also provides a chance to take courses in languages that a district may not be able to offer due to low student interest. Alexander Konsur of the NEIU noted American Sign Language classes — 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 sparks interest once students discover there's an online option: "Tunkhannock Area didn't have a Latin certified teacher, and had one student interested in it," a conundrum easily resolved with the flexible online offerings of CAOLA and its regional version, Northeastern Online Learning Academy.

One of the advantages of the system is the "extended electives" options. "Students have taken courses on forensics, sociology, business math for a business career, and some options they may find more interesting (then district offerings) for English course credits," Konsur said.

And while some courses may still benefit from hands-on experience in person, such as science labs, the virtual learning field has improved dramatically in that area. "We have 3D modeling," Moran said. "We have virtual labs that are phenomenal." In fact, she suggests, one good thing to come out of all the pandemic may be the development of online learning techniques. "It really pushed us into the future."

The system can be "much more cost effective" than other online learning options," Konsur said, because a district pays for the service on a "per course, per student" basis.

And a district can opt to either align the online courses with its own in-class sessions, or to make the online option standalone. Aligning courses can allow a student to go online for just a week or two if something comes up that precludes attending in person, then segue smoothly back into the classroom setting.

At CAOLA, Clarke said, there are hundreds of offerings, and multiple options for many of them. "We have 5 different vendors. So a district may have six or seven options for a fourth-grade English course, say."

The system has been used this summer locally to help students in "credit recovery," Moran said. The pandemic may have left students short on some required course work, but they've been making up for it online.

If expansion is a measure of success, CAOLA makes the grade.

Clarke noted it began in 2009 by offering online options to 13 districts in the Capital Area Intermediate Unit, but has expanded to serve 150 school districts in 10 intermediate units.

"And we're still growing," he said.

©2021 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.