Online classes offer students flexibility, new challenges

Online classes offer students flexibility, new challenges

Photo: Sam Barton

Amy Webb gives the orientation for the Online Planning for College and Work class. This is the first of three meetings in which the class meets face-to-face.

By Sam Barton, Staff Writer

A familiar problem appears each winter when Fairmont students plan their classes for the following year. Fairmont offers so many classes, yet there are still only seven periods in a day. Students often have to make difficult choices about a class they want or even need to fit in before they graduate.

It used to be that summer school provided the only outlet, albeit a limited one. But technology is changing all of that. Increasingly, Fairmont students are finding that they can squeeze that extra class into their schedule by taking advantage of courses offered online.

A growing number of regular classes at Fairmont offer some online component; a few classes are offered completely online.

The basis of most online courses at Fairmont is Moodle. This website is a free service that allows Fairmont teachers to set up functional, modular courses online. The Moodle platform allows for tests, quizzes, discussions and projects just like a conventional class would. Nearly every class with an online component uses this site, and each student in these classes is given his own account.

AP U.S. History teacher John Butchko uses Moodle. “Through Moodle, students can generate group papers, keep their own blogs, interact with each other through its chat function, contact their teacher, take tests and quizzes and more,” Butchko said.

Butchko believes the site makes getting and completing work easier for students. “I like Moodle for the ease of grading tools, for the ability to let students re-take tests multiple times and its ability to track a student’s time spent on an activity,” he said.

Moodle allows classes to be blended, meaning both online and in class, and also serves as a resource for some students. Paige Johnson is a sophomore taking AP U.S. History. She consistently uses the Moodle resource for help with essays, as well as re-taking tests and quizzes. “I like Moodle because it is easy to use and has all of the information that I need in one place,” said Johnson. “I don’t know how I would get my essays done without Moodle.”

Google Docs is another online resource for Fairmont students. This is an online work component similar to Microsoft Word, and it is connected directly to the Google email. Kim Broomhall, the technology coordinator at Fairmont High School, says Google Docs is convenient for students and teachers because it is cloud-based and allows students to access their documents and work both from home and at school. This is possible due to the Gmail accounts that have been created for all Fairmont students.

While blended courses with online components still meet each day in class, Fairmont offers classes that are strictly online. Students can take their Planning for College and Work as well as Government classes, both requirements to graduate from Fairmont, online in order to leave room in their schedules for classes only available during the day.

Amy Webb developed the Planning for College and Work online class in 2011. This class is a one-semester course in which the students only meet on three occasions: to register, to take a practice ACT, and to take the final exam. Webb is available for correspondence whenever help is needed. “The online course allows students to work at their own pace each week to complete the assignments and also to work ahead to free up future time,” said Webb. “Students like the flexibility that the course has.”

Online courses also allow students who are less comfortable expressing their opinions to do so without face-to-face confrontation. “Students feel they can be more honest or outgoing with an online course where they are not face-to-face with the teacher and classmates,” said Webb. “This is especially useful for shy and more reserved students who might not speak up in a classroom environment.”

Like the Online Planning for College and Work class, Jennifer Richardson’s Online Government students meet with her only a handful of times, though consistent individual correspondence is still encouraged. Richardson believes that online courses are a necessary experience for students. “If you plan on going to a university at this point in time, you are probably going to end up taking an online class,” she said.

However, there are notable pitfalls with online courses.

“They are a little harder,” said Richardson. “There is a lot of procrastination because we, as teachers, are not there to look over students’ shoulders.”

However, teachers can monitor the work that students do on the website. This allows them to track down slacking students when they fail to complete assignments or log in to the website at all. Both Richardson and Webb agree that their online courses require consistent responsibility in order to be successful in the class.

“As an education community, we need to move towards wanting to be challenged,” said Richardson. “Someone who is a good a student, as most are, should want to take harder classes. They shouldn’t want to waste their time in a class that they feel is not challenging or pertaining to their long-term goals. And I think that that is hopefully what we are moving towards with these online classes.”