January 17, 2011
Florida Has Classes Without Teachers
By LAURA HERRERA
MIAMI — On the first day of her senior year at North Miami Beach Senior High School, Naomi Baptiste expected to be greeted by a teacher when she walked into her precalculus class.
"All there were were computers in the class," said Naomi, who walked into a room of confused students. "We found out that over the summer they signed us up for these courses."
Naomi is one of over 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools enrolled in a program in which core subjects are taken using computers in a classroom with no teacher. A "facilitator" is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with any technical problems.
These virtual classrooms, called e-learning labs, were put in place last August as a result of Florida's Class Size Reduction Amendment, passed in 2002. The amendment limits the number of students allowed in classrooms, but not in virtual labs.
While most schools held an orientation about the program, some students and parents said they were not informed of the new class structure. Others said they were not given the option to choose whether they wanted this type of instruction, and they voiced concern over the program's effectiveness.
The online courses are provided by Florida Virtual School, which has been an option in the state's public schools. The virtual school has provided online classes for home-schooled and traditional students who want to take extra courses. Students log on to a Web site to gain access to lessons, which consist mostly of text with some graphics, and they can call, e-mail or text online instructors for help.
The 54 participating schools in the Miami-Dade County system's e-learning lab program integrate the online classes differently. A representative from the district said in an e-mail that the system "provided lab facilitators, training for those facilitators and coordination" between the district schools and the virtual school.
Theresa Sutter, a member of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Miami Beach Senior High School, said she thought her daughter, Kelly, was done with virtual classes after she finished Spanish the previous year at home.
When Kelly said that she had been placed in a virtual lab, Ms. Sutter recalled her "jaws dropped." Neither of them had been told that Kelly would be in one.
"It's totally different from what classroom teaching is like, so it's a completely different animal," Ms. Sutter said.
Under the state's class-reduction amendment, high school classrooms cannot surpass a 25-student limit in core subjects, like English or math. Fourth- through eighth-grade classrooms can have no more than 22 students, and prekindergarten through third grade can have no more than 18.
Alix Braun, 15, a sophomore at Miami Beach High, takes Advanced Placement macroeconomics in an e-learning lab with 35 to 40 other students. There are 445 students enrolled in the online courses at her school, and while Alix chose to be placed in the lab, she said most of her lab mates did not.
"None of them want to be there," Alix said, "and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it's a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice."
School administrators said that they had to find a way to meet class-size limits. Jodi Robins, the assistant principal of curriculum at Miami Beach High, said that even if students struggled in certain subjects, the virtual labs were necessary because "there's no way to beat the class-size mandate without it."
In response to parental confusion about virtual classes, the Miami Beach High parent-teacher association created a committee on virtual labs. The panel works with the school toward "getting issues on the table and working proactively," said Patricia Kaine, the association's president.
Some teachers are skeptical of how well the program can help students learn.
"The way our state is dealing with class size is nearly criminal," said Chris Kirchner, an English teacher at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami. "They're standardizing in the worst possible way, which is evident in virtual classes."
While Ms. Kirchner questions the instructional effectiveness of online courses, she said there was a place for them at some level.
"I think there should be learning on the computer," Ms. Kirchner said. "That part is from 2:30 p.m. on. The first part of the day should be for learning with people."
But Michael G. Moore, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, said programs that combine virtual education and face-to-face instruction could be effective. This is called the "blended learning concept."
"There is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more effective than a classroom," said Mr. Moore, who is also editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. He said, however, that research and his experiences had shown that proper design and teacher instruction within the classroom were necessary. A facilitator who only monitors student progress and technical issues within virtual labs would not be categorized as part of a blended-learning model, he said. Other variables include "the maturity and sophistication of the student," he said.
Despite some complaints about the virtual teaching method, administrators said e-learning labs were here to stay. And nationally, blending learning has already caught on in some areas.
In Chicago Public Schools, high schools have "credit recovery" programs that let students take online classes they previously failed so they can graduate. Omaha Public Schools also have similar programs that require physical attendance at certain locations.
Julie Durrand, manager of the e-learning lab program, said the virtual school planned to work more closely with district schools to ensure success. She said virtual school officials wanted orientations to be mandatory in schools with labs. Ms. Durrand also predicted that labs would expand to middle schools and would include more grade levels in schools that currently limited the labs to juniors and seniors.
There are six middle and K-8 schools using virtual labs in Miami, including Cutler Ridge Middle School and Frank C. Martin K-8 Center.
"I truly believe this will be an option for many districts across the state," Ms. Durrand said. "I think we just hit the tip of the iceberg."