Written by Carl Ill, Retired Michigan School Administrator
This article first appeared in the April 19, 2010, edition of the
Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators
Melanie Laber is a busy woman. Besides maintaining a household and raising a seven-year-old with her husband, Melanie teaches math daily to 160 seventh graders at Hartland Middle School as well as geometry and trigonometry to 80 more students from all over Michigan online for Michigan Virtual for Students. In addition, she earned a master’s from the University of Phoenix and is pursuing a doctorate degree through Capella University, both online schools. (Her area of focus on her doctoral program: “Instructional design for online learning.”) Melanie has designed many of Michigan Virtual for Student’s math courses in the past and is currently putting together an online probability and statistics class. She has taught online methods classes to nearly 200 Michigan teachers.
If you noted the term online popping up quite often in Melanie’s activities, there is a good reason: she is passionate about the value of online learning. In fact, Melanie Laber is Michigan’s Online Teacher of the Year. It doesn’t take long to figure out why. When asked about the virtues of computer-based classes, Melanie started by relating her own story. Being a naturally shy person, she found large classes, such as those at the University of Michigan where she earned her undergraduate degree, daunting and she seldom joined in on classroom discussions. However, once she started her online master’s classes, where class interaction is carried on via discussion boards, Melanie felt free to jump right in.
She related another example highlighting the difference an online class can make – this one a geometry class she recently taught for Michigan Virtual for Students. While many of the students were enrolled because they had fallen behind on their high school credits, one of the students was a bright sixth grader. Of course in this class, no one could actually see their fellow classmates, and the sixth-grader soon became a popular and influential class member because of his insightful and compelling posts on the class discussion board. What are the odds that a sixth grader and a group of credit recovery high schoolers would have mixed well in a regular face-to-face classroom?
Besides giving students who are particularly ahead or behind in their academic program, like those mentioned in the previous example, Melanie sees many reasons why school districts would want to expand their online offerings:
- It is impossible for schools to offer all the classes students might want to take. Virtual classes, such as world languages and advanced placement courses, can help fill the gap.
- Simple class conflicts can be resolved if the student can take one of the courses online.
- Online classes allow students who want to accelerate their education to do so by taking extra classes.
- Students can learn at their own paces. Melanie points out that she faces much fewer differentiation challenges with her online classes than she does with her regular classes at Hartland Middle School. Overall, each online student learns at his or her own pace with few of the constraints found in the traditional classroom setting. Students who need more time and practice are better able to stay with the class.
- Students who do not fit well in the traditional classroom socially or who have different learning styles can often be better accommodated online.
- Online classes, especially in arcane or advanced subjects, are well suited to home-schooled students.
- Students with particular high-level skills such as talented singers, dancers or athletes who must train for hours each day can pursue their education through the flexibility offered by virtual classes.
Melanie points out that in order to be successful, online students need to bring some basic abilities and characteristics to the table. They need the organizational skills and self-discipline to allocate time for their daily learning. Some rudimentary technical ability is necessary, and it really helps if students are resourceful and are willing to dig deep into their subject material. Online learning suits highly motivated students well (although many previously unmotivated students do better online as well).
What does Melanie have to say to superintendents about online learning? First of all, she reminds us that we are preparing students for 21st-century life. Our students today are living in a much more technologically advanced world than their predecessors. The technology which to adults might look exotic is viewed as simply normal by today’s school children. (Today’s students are often referred to as being digital natives.)
When asked if schools should be investigating and initiating more technologically advanced learning, she responds, “You’re holding them back if you don’t.”
Technology allows schools to serve a variety of students in variable settings in ways unheard of only a generation ago. And of course, online learning is cost-effective, making its successful application in today’s school setting a necessary part of self-preservation in an era of declining revenues and increasing competition.
What cautions does Melanie offer? Above all, “Don’t jump in without a plan. Read the research,” Melanie suggests
An excellent source is the International Association for Online Learning (iNACOL). The iNACOL website is a good place to start. Of course the wisest superintendents have become a part of MASA’s SE2E2 initiative, so everyone reading this article has a great opportunity to stay ahead of the curve. Integrating online learning into your school system’s existing program will take time, planning, knowledge and good sense.
Melanie Laber is more than a proponent for the virtues of online learning; she is a living example of its potential. She started her association with Michigan Virtual for Students less than five years ago, and already she is a sophisticated leader in online education’s potential. She sees this technology as a necessary component in maintaining excellence in Michigan’s schools.
And as she says, “Embrace the new methods because after all it’s really about what’s best for kids.”
Can there be a better reason?
About Michigan Virtual
Michigan Virtual is a private, nonprofit Michigan corporation established by the State of Michigan in 1998 to serve as a champion for online learning. It is the parent organization of the Michigan Virtual for Students and Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute.