Technology in the classroom, Part 3: Distance deleted

SIDES student Rebecca Hayman does a jump during figure skating practice in Coquitlam.

SIDES student Rebecca Hayman does a jump during figure skating practice in Coquitlam.

Technology allows for a surprising range of subjects to be taught from afar

Distance eduction has long been used to teach academic subjects to students geographically separated from their classroom. But it’s also possible to teach subjects such as phys-ed online.

Rebecca Hayman, considered an “A” student in P.E., didn’t have to achieve the high score in an online basketball game or spend hours toiling in her Farmville garden on Facebook to earn the high grade.

For her online P.E. 12 class, the 17-year-old student continued her active involvement in figure skating, while also completing hand-in assignments on such topics as fitness and nutrition.

“It made it a lot easier to get the credits I needed without having to do everything a normal gym class would have, like playing basketball and soccer,” she says.

Hayman has been a part-time student at SIDES (South Island Distance Education School) for four years. SIDES offers 93 per cent of its courses online to its 4,000-plus enrolled students.

“The trend lately is geared more towards personalized learning: your path, your pace,” says SIDES principal Kevin White. “Technology is more than just a tool, it’s the medium for our students to learn.”

Erik Oinonen, one of the online phys-ed teachers at SIDES, says the course doesn’t take the form of a normal in-school gym class, where grading in individual sport units is based on performance. Instead, the course is designed to help students set personal goals and find activities in which they’re interested to get them into healthy habits.

“The building blocks of a good P.E. program are good activities that the student finds enjoyable,” he says. “We want to see improvements through the goals they set, not necessarily the time and speed that they’re doing it.”

Distance education used to be an option just for students who couldn’t attend class for one reason or another, usually health problems, travel or a demanding extracurricular schedule.

Nowadays, distance ed is also a viable alternative for students interested in taking more responsibility for their education, or students who’ve had a bad experience in a community school.

It’s also an option for high school students looking to take courses for credit that aren’t offered at their own school or for adults looking to upgrade their eduction.

Hayman used to go to school in Saanich, but moved to Coquitlam to focus on figure skating. She now attends class four hours a day on the mainland and fits her SIDES courses in when she can.

“I have spares set up so I can go to training without missing classes. On the Island, I found it hard to catch up all the time,” she says. “I usually try and do work (for my online courses) once a day, so it’s like I’m taking a class.”

The ability to be responsible for the pace of her learning is proving to be a huge benefit. She completed everything she needed for P.E. 12 in one month, despite having a full year to complete a SIDES course.

Teachers at Claremont secondary see the potential of online classes and personalized learning. The school has created a “hybrid” Planning 10 class that is part web-based, part classroom-based. Teachers Jill Marshall and Rimo Bussoli have received strong positive feedback after just one semester.

“The way teachers have used technology hasn’t changed, in the sense of trying to find something which brings the curriculum alive,” says Claremont principal Mark Fraser. “The biggest change is truly that sense of bringing the world into the classroom.”

The planning course allows students to move at their own pace – to an extent – while still having the luxury of some structure and face-to-face assistance.

“It’s the old classroom way of teaching, but introducing it with technology,” Bussoli says. “It’s the best of both worlds … and it blows the doors off a traditional classroom setting.”

But SIDES teacher Holly Mair acknowledges that online courses are not for every student, nor are they for every teacher.

“It’s the same type of workload, but there are different stresses. There’s no discipline, there’s no bell, but there are a lot more responsibilities,” she says.

Those responsibilities are worth the luxury of more free time, independence and personalized lessons, Hayman says.

“It takes a bit of getting used to, taking classes online, but it’s made it a lot easier for me to manage my time and work on my courses,” she says. “I feel like I’m taking a more active role in my education … and I don’t need to try and schedule my life around school.”

Socialization network…

At any one time at the SIDES campus, there are no more than 30 kids roaming the hallways. Because the distance ed school allows its 4,000 students to work from home – or from anywhere in the world they can access the Internet – being in class doesn’t require students to physically be in class.

SIDES student Jordan Sipos, 13, does his entire course load through SIDES and actually attends the school every day (albeit only for three hours) to focus on his work.

“I find it nice working on your own. You don’t have to deal with all the drama of high school,” he says.

But SIDES students do socialize with one another. During V-Class sessions (virtual class), teachers can separate students into groups as they collaborate on projects and share ideas.

There are also picnics and meetings where online classmates meet, so long as they’re in the city.

Both Hayman and Sipos say the lack of socializing with classmates online is made up through the friendships built in the extracurricular activities that keep them busy. For Hayman that’s figure skating. For Sipos, that’s tennis, golf and judo.

SIDES teacher Rachel Morris says the atmosphere of online courses allows for a “coming together” of all types of learners.

“No one knows why you’re there. No one knows that kid’s been bullied, or that kid is brainy, or that kid struggles in a particular area,” she says. “It’s not a bad sort of anonymity.”

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