More high school students are taking courses online

FORSYTH — Mary Persons High School is too small to hire someone to teach Chinese to the lone senior who wanted to take the course this year.

But the school managed to work around it.

During second period, senior Christopher Kennedy takes the class online via the state’s “virtual school.”

He watches taped lectures and listens to audio of the language on a computer in the media center.

“It’s not the most exciting way to do it, but it gets the job done,” said Kennedy, who hopes to major in international business one day.

The state started offering virtual courses in 2005 because some schools, especially rural ones, couldn’t offer many Advanced Placement or specialty courses, which left motivated students at a disadvantage.

Since then, participation in the virtual school program has grown at most high schools, although some systems are still hesitant to use it.

About 1,600 students statewide enrolled in a virtual course in the 2005-06 school year. By 2008-2009, that total had increased to about 4,800 students taking one of the 134 courses offered.

Homebound students, those in work study and students who have class scheduling conflicts are also benefiting from the online courses.

“Schools have discovered the options and opportunities Georgia Virtual School can provide their students,” said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

Mary Persons has 22 students now taking virtual courses, while Peach County High has about 25 students enrolled, mostly in geometry.

Houston County schools have about 27 students taking courses this fall.

“Some of what we have are schools that may not have enough students for a class” to warrant hiring an instructor, said Wanda Creel, Houston’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. “So we utilize the virtual school so our students still have access to the course.”

Many students are taking a foreign language class such as German, she said.

Although the courses may not be for everyone, test scores among those who take virtual courses and those enrolled in regular courses haven’t shown significant differences in grades, she said.

The state noted that scores from virtual End of Course exams in spring 2009 were actually higher than the state average.

Eighty-five adjunct instructors teach the courses. Some of them are retired teachers. Some are teachers who live out of state or overseas. Some school systems, such as Bibb, Jones and Twiggs counties, don’t have students enrolled in the state virtual school program this school year for various reasons.

Most of Bibb County’s students who took a virtual class in the past needed to make up a failed class. This school year, the system bought its own software program to meet that need, school officials said.

The state virtual school program costs school systems $300 for a half-unit class per student.

Bibb officials say they first try to hire their own instructor if enough students want to take a specialty course.

Sometimes it’s also just a matter of no students asking to sign up.

“The program is still available to students who need or desire a course. However, most students’ needs and interests are met through our own campus curriculum,” said Nancy Nash, a Jones County High School assistant principal.

While each school has an assigned Georgia “virtual facilitator” — usually counselors or administrators — those workers already have a hectic job.

“Some have simply decided not to promote the program because it creates more work for them to do,” Cardoza said.

In all, more than 9,000 of the state’s students have taken a virtual course, and the state expects the figure to grow substantially.

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning says virtual education courses are the next wave for the future.

Within six years, the group predicts that about 10 percent of all courses will be computer-based, with about half of all courses delivered online by 2019.