Allison Ruiz was attending the Thanksgiving parade in downtown Detroit two months ago when she got a call from a student with a homework question.
Nothing unusual for a teacher whose classes are 100 percent online -- and whose students hit the keyboards whenever and wherever the mood strikes.
“I was a little leery about not seeing them in class every day,” said Ruiz, a social studies teacher at Croswell-Lexington High School in the Thumb. “But I think it’s been really successful and the kids are really enjoying it.”
Most Michigan school districts offer some kind of virtual learning opportunities, whether it's a blend of online/in-class work, or classes offered strictly online. But Croswell-Lexington High School prides itself on expanding education to include real-time, real-world experiences.
Each of the 800 students is issued an iPad, allowing them to Skype with students in Taiwan or click into any corner of the globe with Google Earth.
So why should every class be restricted to an actual room at a specific time?
Last September, Ruiz became the school’s first full-time teacher whose 120 students are enrolled in classes solely accessed via the Web.
She and three part-time virtual teachers have 175 students enrolled in at least one virtual class, including algebra, introduction to physics, English, civics, U.S. history, economics and world studies.
“Students are wired differently than they were even 20 years ago -- they learn differently,” said Principal Theo A. Kerhoulas. “They are multi-taskers and very efficient. Many take advantage of the flexibility of virtual learning. They can learn in small chunks throughout the day, speed through things they know, slow down and repeat things they struggle with, stop and research from multiple sources, and prove their knowledge through multiple media. It's a game-changer.”
Michigan at forefront on online ed
Michigan was the first state to require online learning as a requirement for high school graduation. The Michigan Merit High School Graduation Requirement in 2006 required all high school students participate in an online course or learning experience.
Since then, four other states – Alabama, Idaho, Florida and Virginia – have adopted similar requirements.
“Teacher-supported online learning provides many students with a flexible and meaningful alternative learning option to earn high school or college credit,” says Mike Flanagan, who was state superintendent of public schools when the requirement was adopted – and who continues in that role today.
The benefits of online learning will continue to be debated, said Jamey Fitzpatrick president and CEO of Michigan Virtual University, which, since 2000, has offered 120,000 online courses to middle and high school students in the state.
“But at the end of the day, life as we know it has changed,” he said, noting that last year in the United States, one of every five college students took an online course. “Online learning gives middle and high school students the chance to gain the skill sets they need in higher education and the world of work.”
Fitzpatrick said online learning is particularly beneficial to students in rural communities, such as those served by Croswell-Lexington.
“It’s an incredible equity lever that makes available curricular offerings that historically were only accessible by students in wealthy suburban schools with 3,000 kids,” he said.
Croswell-Lexington Superintendent Kevin D. Miller believes educators need to offer multiple modes of learning to reach students, whether that's online learning, blended learning, face-to-face, collaborative, or project-based.
"It's important to meet the learner where he or she is, and provide learning opportunities for all," he said.
On the first day of class at C-L, Ruiz meets in person with all students to make sure they understand how the class will run, how to log in, etc. After that, they can log on to their classwork anytime, anywhere. If the course is scheduled first or fifth hour, the student can come to school an hour late or leave school an hour early. Some choose to work on a computer in the school library or Wi-Fi hall during that class time, logging on to class discussion boards to connect with other students in the class.
Every student has Ruiz’s cell phone number, so she frequently gets texts and calls.
“So I’m still in contact with the kids; it’s just that I don’t see them every day,” she said. “And any time someone needs to meet with me, I’m happy to do that, too.”
The success of virtual learning comes in many ways, said Principal Kerhoulas, citing GPA, student demand, standardized test scores and graduation rates. But most revealing are the anecdotal stories of a few at-risk students who have earned their diploma due to the virtual program, he said.
One of those recent graduates is Asha Maxfield, 18, the student who called Ruiz on Thanksgiving morning.
“Online classes are definitely a good idea,” said Maxfield, 18, who eagerly chose the option of virtual learning for the two classes she needed to graduate. “You can work at your own pace, and get done what you need to do when it’s convenient for you.”
Maxfield said she appreciated that Ruiz was so available to her.
To Kerhoulas, that proves that virtual learning is not students learning from computers but rather students learning from teachers through computers.
“We should never underestimate the power of the teacher-student relationship, he said. “Even virtually.”
Jo Collins Mathis is a veteran journalist who has written for numerous publications in Washtenaw and Wayne counties. She was an award-winning reporter and columnist with the Ann Arbor News for 15 years, and a features page editor and columnist at the Ypsilanti Press.