Colleges and universities have for years offered interactive television and online courses to afford students a wide array of educational opportunities. And while public schools have tried to include a variety of courses in their curriculums to suit all their students' needs, as well as keep up with today's fast-paced technology, many lag behind due to financial constraints and enrollment issues.
Now, beginning with the 2008-09 school year, middle and high school students living in Minnesota will have more educational opportunities open to them through iQ Academy, a unique online alternative to the traditional brick-and-mortar school learning environment. The programme has courses for students in grades 6-12.
'This won't work for everyone, but it is another educational option,' said Lisa McClure, nationwide director of iQ Academy, which also operates in four other states. 'There are a lot of students that this programme is ideal for.'
Fergus Falls Independent School District #544 oversees the programme, she explained, which is accredited under the state's rules for technology-based education. The district ran a smaller online programme, Virtual School Minnesota, for the last two years that offered courses to students in the Fergus Falls area. But, like other smaller school programmes, it struggled with what curriculum to use and course offerings. By partnering with iQ Academy, McClure said, the district was not only able to increase its offerings, but also expand the programme.
'So it's been around a while, we're just now putting the pieces together to make it available throughout the state,' she said.
Fergus Falls District staff are currently doing double duty with the standard curriculum and the virtual school, said Jesse Thorstad, technology specialist with the district. As the programme grows and they get a better feel for what is needed, it can employ full-time staff dedicated to the programme, depending on number of students enrolled.
'The nice thing about being online is we're not constrained by walls or a building,' McClure said. 'We can add more staff if needed because a lot of students enroll in a course. But, if there are only a few enrolled, that works, too.'
The programme costs students living in Minnesota nothing, McClure said, because of open enrollment laws. Students can attend the school full-time, in which case they are issued a laptop computer to use during their attendance, and can earn their diploma through the Fergus Falls School District. They can also attend part-time, taking one, two or a few classes. These situations and costs would be worked out with the student's home district, she added.
Besides a few core courses that some smaller school districts are unable to offer, iQ Academy has many electives to choose from at both high school and middle school levels. For high schoolers, there are 11 Advanced Placement, five technology, and 15 general elective courses. The school offers five world languages in various proficiency levels: Spanish, French, German, Latin and Mandarin Chinese to students in grades 6-12.
'Our Mandarin Chinese course is an award-winning programme,' McClure said. 'With today's global market, it's been said to be even more important than Spanish. But few school districts can offer it.'
In some instances, iQ Academy works with other districts to offer classes, like language courses. 'It's a way for small districts to take advantage of online offerings. It makes sense to small schools,' McClure said.
She pointed out some types of students that could greatly benefit from the virtual school environment:
— Those with higher-than-average abilities who tend to work ahead of their class
— Those who find themselves lagging behind others in their grade
— Those with medical or physical problems that keep them away from the classroom for long periods
— Those who 'dream of pursuing their passion' but couldn't by attending school during the day
— Those who wish to complete high school early and go on to college
— Those who work well on their own but don't seem to fit in the standard schoolroom setting
— Anyone who's able to work well independently and prefers the flexibility of online learning
'Our full-scale school programme meets the needs of all students, from low to high levels learning,' McClure said, 'and not just academic.'
It's a true virtual school that provides a well-rounded experience for the student, including the social aspects, she said. For the full-time student, there are a variety of clubs to join and a commons area to chat it up with other students, all online. Once the enrollment figures are in, parents in communities across the state will be hired to coordinate activities for students like proms, talent shows and other events.
'The students really dictate what they'll do,' she said. 'You don't have to give up a social life because you're online. Some great friendships have been formed in other states through this.'
McClure said it's important to meet the needs of all students, so the technology is designed to work with dial-up Internet access as well as high-speed. In many rural areas, she added, dial-up is the only access available.
'We're all about leveling playing field for students all over,' she said.
While students do much of their work independently, there are interactive elements such as the weekly virtual classroom instruction, McClure said. Student-teacher contact as well as parent-teacher contact is also essential, and can be as often or as little as necessary. A school counselor is also available to help students select their courses, and address their academic, personal/social and career development needs.
'It's all about us conforming to students' and parents' needs and schedules, rather than them conforming to ours,' she said.