Vanasia Bradley, 14, with her mom, Sherry Bradley, does homework for an online class. The Canton High gymnast hopes to make the '16 Olympics and Web classes work with her training schedule. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)
Online learning for Michigan’s public school students is kicking into high gear in January, when students get more choices in deciding how and where they want to take their classes.
A statewide catalog of online courses is being assembled this month for students in grades 5-12 who — for the first time — will be able to take up to two online courses per semester as part of their regular school curriculum.
Under changes in Michigan school law approved in 2012, students will need permission from their parents to sign up for the classes, which start in January, but they no longer will need approval from their home district, which has to pay providers for the courses.
Students can only take online courses offered by Michigan school districts or through Michigan Virtual University, a state-sponsored nonprofit offering online instruction to K-12 students. The law also requires that courses be taught by Michigan-certified teachers.
The changes could greatly expand the reach of virtual learning in Michigan. Students who take online classes now, like Vanasia Bradley, enjoy the flexibility they offer.
Vanasia, a gymnast who hopes to make the 2016 Olympics, takes two core courses from Michigan Virtual University as part of her curriculum at Canton High School, where she’s a freshman..
“With her travel for competition and then she trains for 30 hours a week — that’s where the online courses come in handy,” said her mother, Sherry Bradley.
Jamey Fitzpatrick, president & CEO of Michigan Virtual University, said each district must decide whether the changes are an opportunity or a threat to local school budgets.
“They now have the ability to take their fine teaching staff and their expertise and serve kids in every ZIP code in the state,” he said. “The world is changing at a pretty rapid pace. All you have to do is talk to a 16-year-old. We are not really pushing the envelope — it’s 2013.”
Students do not pay for the courses themselves. For each course a student takes, their school district pays 1/12th of the state's per-pupil allowance for a semester to the district offering the course or MVU.
For example, using the state’s minimum foundation allowance of $7,076 for this school year, a semester course would cost $589.
Fitzpatrick said students and parents should be able to review course offering and syllabi in the statewide catalog this month so districts can honor enrollment requests by Jan. 1. The courses would begin later that month.
Students will be able to search the catalog by subject, such as astronomy or Mandarin. Online courses can be taken at home or in school, depending on each district’s policy.
There is no class-size limit in the law for online courses, but Fitzpatrick said each course will have student-teacher ratios in line with brick-and-mortar schools, ranging from 15:1 to 30:1.
MVU, which is assembling the statewide catalog, has asked all Michigan school districts to contribute course offerings. Currently, most districts use MVU or other providers for online learning.
Fitzpatrick was unable to say how many students took online classes through MVU, but since its inception the program has recorded 138,000 course enrollments. About 1,000 Michigan teachers have taken the training for online course teaching, out of 100,000 statewide.
Online courses give students opportunities they can’t get in their own districts, Fitzpatrick said.
“In rural areas of the state, do they offer seven world languages? We offer seven world languages,” he said. “Kids who don’t have the opportunity will become disadvantaged because that’s how education and training is being delivered in every other part of our world.”
Not all districts are ready to add courses to the catalog.
David Mustonen, communications director for Dearborn Public Schools, said the district had some students use online education through MVU during the summer and Ramadan, when some students were fasting and needed to adjust their schedules.
The district is not offering online courses taught by Dearborn teachers for the catalog. Under the law, school districts are only required to provide students with a link to MVU to search for information on taking online courses.
“We are approaching this cautiously. With the right student and the right course, it can work out very well,” Mustonen said. “The concern is with some of the elective courses, how well do they fit in with the overall curriculum to graduate?”
Critics say online education should be expanded slowly.
Gary Miron, an online education expert in the College of Education at Western Michigan University, said research on learning effectiveness in online courses largely shows no difference from face-to-face classes, but the evidence is based on advanced post graduate-level studies.
“The little research we have on online learning effectiveness for students from grades K to 12 is negative,” Miron said. “Student success at this level will depend on whether the students have the meta-cognitive skills (ability to self-regulate) and whether there are adults that can help structure the learning environment and support the student.”
Oversight is crucial, he said. Miron thinks Michigan should pilot new online learning courses before expanding further.
“If the teachers have 60-120 students per class, and if they only exchange an email once a week, this is not going to result in reasonable quality,” he said.
In the Plymouth-Canton School District, Vanasia Bradley is one of 10 students enrolled in online classes through MVU. All of them are in an accelerated learning program, and some are athletes who need a flexible school schedule to accommodate training demands, Mary Holaly, with district communications, said.
The district has provided mentors for each student to track their progress and help with problems.
Vanasia takes English and world history at home on her laptop. She logs onto the MVU website and checks for messages from her teacher, who lives in Lambertville and taught at Bedford Public Schools in Monroe County.
Vanasia clicks on her lesson for the week and looks over the assignment: reading from “To Kill A Mockingbird.” She likes online learning because “they don’t tell me what to do. I can go at my own pace. I can go as fast or as slow as I want.”
But it’s not fun, she said.
“It’s not easy,” Vanasia said. “It would be easier to do the work in school.”