Online Classes Enter Teaching Mainstream

By Beacon Staff

As online options increase at local schools, more students – from high school to college – will take their education from the traditional complex of brick-and-mortar buildings to interactive online message boards.

Enrollment in online credit classes at Flathead Valley Community College increased 42 percent in the 2007-2008 school year, and is expected to jump again this semester. And in the spring, 15 seniors at Bigfork High School will join a worldwide non-profit organization to take classes online in subjects that aren’t offered at BHS. The program will be the first of its kind in Montana.

Officials at both schools say the online offerings improve students’ quality of education and are the result of rising demand for more choices and flexibility in class scheduling.

“Student tell us they need more flexibility in how classes are delivered, and more and more of them are very tech savvy so this isn’t a foreign idea to them,” Pat Pezzelle, the school’s director of extended learning, said. “As a community college, it’s imperative for us to take our direction from the community and adjust to their needs.”

Last spring, about 450 people enrolled in FVCC’s online classes, according to Pezzelle. Another 40 to 50 students took advantage of interactive teleconferencing (ITV) courses, where students can watch a live lecture and participate in discussion from an off-site location.

Efforts to grow FVCC’s online program began about five years ago, Pezzelle said. Now, with 60 online courses and 19 ITV courses being offered this fall semester, a majority of students at the school are taking at least one distance education class.

Fifty-three of the school’s 60 credits required for an Associate of Arts Degrees are available online, with plans to develop the remaining courses, Pezzelle said. Two programs – the one-year medical transcription course and the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Certificate of Applied Science Students – are fully online.

By spring semester of 2009, FVCC plans to have an Entrepreneurship Certificate of Applied Science fully online, and by 2010, all the business one- and two-year programs are targeted to do the same.

FVCC’s growing online enrollment is the result of several factors, Pezelle said.

“The change in the economy, especially higher fuel prices, has certainly caused students to look at where they can save money and time,” he said. “This way they have access to classes at any time of the day from anywhere in the world, and it may cut their trips to campus from four times a week to two.”

That’s a particularly attractive option for FVCC’s student body, which has a large number of non-traditional and part-time students who work full-time jobs or have families.

ITV and online courses have also allowed the college to expand class choices at its satellite campus in Lincoln County. “Before, when a class didn’t have enough students we had to cut it, but now we can link them to the Kalispell campus through ITV or get them online,” Pezzelle said.

Several teachers at Bigfork High School proposed Virtual High School last year as a first-rate program that could offer students more in-depth or varied classes, and keep students from transferring to larger schools in the valley.

Virtual High School is a non-profit organization out of Massachusetts that offers more than 200 different classes to students across the country and around the world. Classes are taught by certified teachers and include definite due dates and scheduled deadlines for assignments and activities, much like face-to-face classes, and will include international baccalaureate and advanced placement courses, previously unavailable at the school.

The school will pay $2,375 per semester to participate.

This fall, the school will accept student applications to participate in the online program and choose 15 seniors to begin class in the spring, BHS librarian Matt Porrovecchio said. BHS English teacher Charlie Appleby will also teach an online class as part of the organization’s cooperative.

“For a student who has maybe never left the state of Montana, this is an opportunity to take maybe a literature course or economics class with a student from China,” Porrovecchio said. “It can do so much for the student’s view of the world.”

FVCC and BHS are part of a growing national trend toward developing online classes. In one 2007 poll of more 5,000 adults, Zogby International found that 30 percent of respondents were taking or had taken an online course, and an additional 50 percent said they would consider taking one. Montana’s colleges and universities have all integrated online classes into their curriculums, Pezzelle said.

And high schools, looking to prepare students for the prevalence of such courses at the college level, have begun to offer online options in increasing numbers. In the state of Michigan, Porrovecchio said, students are required to take at least one online course to graduate.

“With a tight budget like Bigfork’s, it’s a perfect fit because the school can offer courses in any number of disciplines for one-tenth the cost of adding another teacher,” he said. “Education doesn’t have to be limited then to the building you’re in or the facilities you’ve got.”