Gwinnett County's online classes gaining popularity

LAWRENCEVILLE - Taking a course in world history or Algebra II is as easy as logging onto a Web site. The Gwinnett County Online Campus is more popular than ever as a way for high school students to take classes that don't fit into their schedules.

The Online Campus was established as an alternative for students either taking remedial courses, wanting to take more enrichment courses or needing to get their requirements out of the way.

The key to the Online Campus is flexibility. As long as they stick to deadlines and attend virtual classroom sessions, students have more control on when they work on their lessons. Rather than having to take a test at a specified time, for example, they have until midnight on the test day to complete it.

"Our students have become consumers of their educations," said Lisa Stueve, administrator of the online campus. "They want to see their educations customized to them."

More than 2,500 Gwinnett students enrolled in online courses in the program's sixth year. It has grown drastically since its inception in 2000, when only 122 students enrolled.

The newest development is a program that allows students to take an online course as part of their regular school day. This works particularly well for students who want to take two classes that meet at the same time. They can simply take one of those classes online during a free period. Eight Gwinnett high schools have enrolled 24 students in this pilot program.

"Some of the benefits of this program are already being seen. Students that had a hard scheduling conflict no longer have to make that decision," Stueve said.

The biggest difference with this new program is in how it is funded. State Senate Bill 33 established that virtual school programs taken during the regular school day could receive funding from the same sources as traditional classes. Students taking classes outside of the regular day will continue to pay $300 tuition per semester for a course.

The online courses are just as rigorous as those taught in traditional classroom settings. While 58 percent of summer school students got an "A" or "B" in their courses, those grades went to 53 percent of Online Campus summer students.

For social studies teacher Gabrielle Bray, teaching online courses is similar to her experience teaching at Berkmar and Grayson high schools. She has been teaching online for three years after taking time off to raise her 2-year-old and 1-year-old sons.

"The content is what we cover in the high schools," Bray said. "It's the same. A lot of people have compared it to a college setting because they think the kids have to be so self-motivated. But I feel like I'm doing almost the same thing I had to do in the classroom."

Just as she did when she was teaching in a traditional classroom, Bray has to be excellent at communicating with parents and students. In the virtual classroom, students all have microphones and speakers so they can talk to their teacher and fellow students. They also have chat rooms and discussion boards. Elluminate Inc., a leading provider of Web conferencing and eLearning software, supplies the application for the virtual classroom.

Every week, students can talk to their teachers online during their online office hours. Parents also receive frequent e-mails updating them on their children's progress.

In the past, parents have been wary about signing their students up for online courses. While their children are often eager to enroll, some parents have expressed skepticism about them taking courses online. But satisfaction rates are high.

"One thing that I've been very proud of in my experience is that I've had several parents that have said they're not really sure about this," Bray said. "But 100 percent of parents have come back to me at the end and said, 'This was a wonderful experience. We're glad we did this.'"

The Online Campus is perfect for student athletes, artists and musicians who want to take several elective courses but can't fit them all into their schedules. Rather than having to choose between them, they can take one of their required academic courses online.

Students can even take physical education courses through the Online Campus. For those, they have to meet at least four times face-to-face with their instructors and develop a fitness plan. For other courses, students typically meet with their teachers in real life when they pick up their course materials and take their final exams.

There are 68 programs offered through the Online Campus. For more information or to look at the spring catalogue, visit www.gwinnettk12online.net.