Online learning is nothing new for Blaine County schools. Students in the county's three high schools are already taking English, math and even foreign language courses online, and some are taking classes they would never be able to take with the limited staff available—marine biology at the Carey School, for example.
But while school officials say they are happy with the increased opportunities that online learning provides for their students, most say they worry about the state's new requirement that all high school students take—and pass—two online courses before graduation.
Pete Jurovich, principal at Wood River High School in Hailey, said many of his students take classes through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy and NovaNet, a program that allows students who have failed a traditional class to make up those credits online. Jurovich said that with so many students involved in the ski team or other sports that take them away from the classroom, online courses are a way for them to keep up with schoolwork.
"It's certainly the way of the future," he said. "If we want to talk about 21st-century learning, I think working through an electronic medium is important."
John Peck, principal at the Carey School, said he tried to implement a requirement last year that all his students take one online course before graduation.
"Everyone realizes that sometime in the future, those kids will have to learn online somehow," he said, adding that many professional and technical schools require students to take classes online.
But at a school as small as the Carey School, with an enrollment of about 70 students, Peck said requiring too many online courses could be a disaster and result in the loss of teachers.
"In a small school, if kids are taking online classes, that's taking students out of those teachers' classes," he said. "Pretty soon, you're looking at classes with no one in them."
Mike Chatterton, business manager for the Blaine County School District, said online course requirements would probably not result in the loss of teachers in much of the district.
"Instead of having 24 or 25 students in a class, we may have 20," he said, adding that the loss of four students would not justify elimination of a class, and therefore a teacher.
However, he said online classes could cause a loss of funding to schools. Schools receive funding based on average daily attendance. That number could drop if online courses are not included in that figure.
"If those students are not attending our classes but are attending an online class, the attendance revenue follows the student," he said, meaning the funding that would otherwise go to the school would go to the online provider instead.
Peck said his main concern was that the passage rates at Carey School for online courses are much lower than for traditional classes. In the 2010-11 school year, Peck said, only seven traditional classes—total—were failed by Carey students. However, 40 percent of the online courses taken by Carey students were failed, which Peck said was due to the fact that online courses don't work for everyone.
"It takes a lot of self-motivation to be able to do it," he said. "The traditional way is to have the teacher in the front and have the students do the work. In a class like these, [the students] have to be self-disciplined."
Lynn Seifert, principal at Silver Creek High School, said she has solved that problem by having her students take all online courses on school grounds, under the supervision of a computer lab teacher who keeps track of deadlines and assignments.
"We feel like we need to be there to prod them, to keep them going," she said. "Our experience has been that the majority need someone to keep them focused."
But sometimes a supervisor just isn't enough, Seifert said, agreeing with Peck.
"Some students need a real, live, human teacher," she said.
How will the schools deal with the requirements? They aren't sure, principals agreed, but they would have to make it work somehow.
"It is what it is, and we'll deal with it," Peck said. "The more they require, the tougher it will be on little schools."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org