May 3, 2012

High-schoolers use Internet to study what isn’t available in classroom

by Sarah Einselen

— Once a week, 16-year-old Jamie Musselman practices her developing Japanese language skills with her instructor, Rikako Pounds, in a small office attached to the Pioneer Junior-Senior High School library.

Pounds isn’t there, though. She’s working from the Indiana Academy at Ball State University, and she’s teaching Jamie the language via webcam.

Jamie is one of 16 academically advanced students who have taken online college-prep courses this year at Pioneer. They picked the eight online classes either to study subjects in more depth than Pioneer’s classes currently go, or to pursue studies in areas, like Japanese, that regular classes don’t explore at all.

The school’s small enrollment — just under 450 in six grades — limits its ability to offer special classes, according to school officials.

Some Pioneer students have turned to online classes in past summers to stay on track for graduation, but over the last two years, the school has begun coordinating online courses for enrichment, too.

“For us it’s two focuses, one in terms of remediation and the other in terms of enhanced learning,” said Pioneer Superintendent Dave Bess. “This gives that student experience without obligating us to something that may only be of interest to a small number of students.”

If only a few students want to study a subject, or if the school can’t supply highly trained teachers for the class, guidance counselors look into other possibilities online.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to expand our curriculum,”

said guidance counselor Karin Ulerick, who has coordinated the online classes this year.

“We can’t offer a class for just one student, or two kids,” Ulerick said.

“We can’t warrant one teacher for maybe a handful of students.”

Even the foreign language classes have been pared down to just Spanish, she said, because interest in French declined.

Jamie and fellow sophomore Emma Groff, 15, along with junior Kaley Bean, 17, decided to study alternative foreign languages this year. Emma is taking Latin via an online course, and Kaley is taking a second-semester French course.

Eleven other students are finishing two college-level English courses coordinated through Ivy Tech. The instructor for that class is on the East Coast.

“We just don’t have the student body to support a lot of AP classes, but I wanted to get a lot of college credit,” said Kaley.

This year, she’s taking online advanced placement classes in composition and U.S. history in addition to the French course, adding up to nine college credits. She plans to complete the college-level English sequence next year for another six credits.

Participation in online courses at other schools is generally limited to remedial work. However, one student at Lewis Cass High School is on track to earn almost a year’s worth of college credits through online courses, said principal Bill Isaacs. That school is exploring how it can expand its use of online courses.

Students in online courses learn from a varying combination of reading assignments and recorded lectures. Most quizzes and tests are administered online, too, and instructors can use class-only chat rooms, instant messaging or email to answer questions.

The students at Pioneer stick with email for asking questions since being online at the same time as the instructor is difficult to work out.

But the communication is not ideal.

“I like to be able to physically tell the teacher what I want,” said Jessica Galbreath, 18, who’s taking the college English sequence.

“If I could see her while I’m asking questions, I feel like I would understand better.”

One chemistry student in an online advanced-placement course said her online experience had been “crazy,” though she’d still take the course if she had it do to over.

Seventeen-year-old Kelley McKaig said she generally took her questions to the high school chemistry teacher.

“There’s not really been any communication with them at all,” she said of the online instructors.

And she has to watch some experiments on video rather than carry them out herself. Actually carrying out the experiments is different than watching a practiced chemist perform them.

“You learn and your data will be a little different,” she said. “Just doing the things will help me remember better than just watching them.”

And on the instructor’s side, online classes are great for connecting with motivated students, but it’s difficult for the instructor to make sure all the assignments are being completed as scheduled.

“I can’t monitor them all the time,” Pounds said during a session with Jamie. “I can’t sit in class with them every day, so I have to ask somebody there.”

Students say the opportunity is worth the struggles.

“I really like it because our school’s regular U.S. history teacher is really cool, and we get to talk sometimes about stuff that’s at a higher level,” Kaley said. “I think that’s interesting, to connect with the teachers about things they’d like to teach but can’t.”

• Sarah Einselen is a staff reporter for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5151 or