The last time we spoke this summer Principal Christopher Ray was just weeks away from opening his first high school. The former elementary principal still needed pupils, teachers and curriculum. But launch it did this fall as Gwinnett Online Campus opened a blended learning high school that combines virtual courses with personal and group time with instructors.
“The first year has been about getting people to understand what we’re all about, what are the requirements,” Ray said. “I thought my previous job was hard. This job is mentally exhausting. You’re constantly thinking, ‘What can we do?’ The technology constantly evolves.” Ray has nearly two decades in the Gwinnett County Public Schools, the last seven as an elementary principal.
Gwinnett is the state’s largest public system with 160,000 students. About one fourth are high school students. The county began to offer supplemental online learning more than a decade ago; last year 5,000 students enrolled in at least one course. This fall Gwinnett took its first steps into an online blended learning high school that is also an incubator for lower grades.
“One of the major pieces is orientation, connecting students with the technology, walking them through how the courses are taught, also working with them on study skills, study strategies,” Ray said. “What is your plan for this course? What is your study time? How will you schedule that? What support do you have at home? This has been a big learning experience for us.”
Gwinnett Online Campus is actually three programs. The online blended learning high school is a charter authorized by the local county board of education. Gwinnett Online continues to operate its robust supplemental course network for students in traditional classrooms and has served more than 30,000 students since its inception. The third component is credit recovery for high school students who need to retake a course they initially failed in a traditional classroom.
Gwinnett Online Campus – the high school – opened in August with 160 students. About one-fourth have since withdrawn. Some returned to traditional classrooms. Some were dropouts who tried online blended learning but found the experience too rigorous. “They had difficulty adjusting,” Ray said. One family with three online learners moved to Connecticut. “We’ve had other students who had babies,” Ray said. “That has impacted their schedules.”
The difference between traditional and virtual classrooms is not just a student experience. One faculty member told Ray, “I didn’t sign up for this,” and withdrew from the online campus program. In the brick-and-mortar classroom, students arrive and leave when the bell rings. Blended learning is point-and-click; teacher – student communication can happen almost anytime, seven days a week.
Social media is a big part of the idea. Gwinnett Online has an impressive website. It also uses Twitter and Facebook for announcements and interesting tidbits. Students and instructors are connected through Google mail accounts. Learning tools include Blackboard – formerly known as Elluminate – and the online learning company Desire 2 Learn.
This academic year is very much an incubator for many reasons. “What are our procedures?” Ray said. “What are our systems? What are our expectations? When we find a student, what support do we give them? These kids are ours.”
High school expansion, launching an online middle school in fall 2012 and an online upper elementary school in fall 2013 are among the next generation goals. Ray said Gwinnett is considering middle school “online home rooms” to foster a common identity. “I know with the middle school students we are talking about bringing them in half day a week,” Ray said.
The online calendar is built around four mini-semesters that operate generally within the same timeline as the August-to-May traditional school year, but learning can be accelerated. More than 180 courses are currently available. Foreign languages enrollment was greater than Gwinnett originally anticipated. New advanced math courses will be added later this year.
Ray said Gwinnett will evaluate the proper mix of full-time and adjunct faculty. He would also like to identify African-American and Hispanic male teachers as good role models for boys. “Role models are very important to the kids,” Ray said. “If I had the opportunity to hire an African-American man who wanted to work with children, it’s such an asset.”
Addendum: Here are three more well regarded online or blended learning programs.
Georgia Virtual School, grades 9-12, all students statewide
Cobb Virtual Academy, grades 9-12, local school students
Forsyth County iAchieve Virtual Academy, grades 6-12, local school students
Interested in learning more about online and blended learning?
Innovative educator Michael Horn will discuss “The Promise of Online Learning” on Friday, September 30, at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s second annual legislative policy briefing which is open to the public. Our location is the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Click here for additional event information. Horn is co-founder and executive director of education at the Innosight Institute. He is the author of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.”