By Natasha Robinson/Bridge Magazine contributor
When high school senior Makenzi Leinhert had a schedule conflict last year, she didn’t have to make the choice between core classes or electives. Instead, her counselor suggested she take an online algebra course to fulfill a requirement and open up her schedule for other face-to-face courses.
“When I took Algebra 2 online, my mom was nervous because I am not a great math student, but I actually got one of the best grades I’ve gotten in a math class,” the Maple Valley High School student said. “There were so many learning techniques. I was also teaching myself somewhat, so it made me feel more confident.”
Leinhert is one of thousands of Michigan K-12 students taking advantage of online learning through systems such as the Michigan Virtual School. Online learning is a major hit at Maple Valley, located about 35 miles southwest of Lansing. Students take courses such as American Sign Language, digital photography, and advanced levels of Spanish with the guidance of an on-site mentor, who acts as a liaison between student and virtual teacher.
Though MVS has been in place for more than a decade, the number of students taking online classes has grown dramatically since Michigan adopted an online-learning high school graduation requirement in 2006. Michigan Virtual School has been at the forefront of the state’s progress, growing from about 40,000 course enrollments in the 2006-07 school year to more than 100,000 this year. Michigan Virtual University uses a combination of annual appropriations from the Legislature, course fees charged to schools and private grants to fund Michigan Virtual School and Michigan LearnPort, an online professional development system for educators.
The availability of virtual courses creates new opportunities for students and teachers, explained John Watson, a consultant for Colorado-based Evergreen Education Group.
“In Michigan, you think about opportunities students have in inner-city Detroit and in a small town in the Upper Peninsula, and they’re not the same as a student in Grosse Pointe, for instance,” Watson said. “Educational opportunities are still sometimes determined by where they live. This helps balance that.”
Michigan Virtual School’s 2011 Online Teacher of the Year Julia Swartz sees advantages for teachers, too. Teaching virtually has made her and her colleagues better at their jobs, Swartz said. Relationship-building is more deliberate for them now.
“If a kid has failed in his local school and everybody thinks he’s a troublemaker, I don’t know he’s a troublemaker unless he tells me,” Swartz said. “Unless I tell them that I’m 65 years old, they don’t know that. I have the same opportunity they have, that the playing field is level for me.”
Swartz is also a part-time administrator with Maple Valley Schools and loves the idea that she can provide access to courses that the school wouldn’t otherwise be able to provide due to cost restrictions. In the past school year, she purchased 107 seats with Michigan Virtual School, for 45 different courses — 29 of which were classes she could not afford to offer in a traditional classroom.
“When I buy astronomy, I get a Michigan-certified, highly qualified teacher… I don’t have the money or the personnel to offer that but Michigan Virtual has dozens of classes I can buy,” Swartz said. “Three-fourths of my students got As or Bs (in virtual courses), so the passing rates are phenomenally high.”
In a December 2011 report to the Legislature, Michigan Virtual University reported an 85.9 percent completion rate for MVS courses offered in the fall 2010, spring 2011 and summer 2011 semesters. This includes 12,807 Michigan student enrollments in semester-length, instructor-led MVS courses, but not those in summer enrichment programs, un-graded pilot programs or non-instructor-led courses.
Virtual schools in Michigan use multiple online learning systems to deliver an educational experience for students that combines video, message boards and asynchronous work. Students enjoy the variety, but may face problems with access to the Internet and hardware. Swartz said they inform Maple Valley students about places to access computers and Web hot spots outside of school, including libraries and restaurants. They also get an hour a day at school for such work, but even then, the programs don’t always load as quickly as students and teachers would like.
“We don’t have the money to buy new computers, switches, servers,” Swartz said. “We’ve got high speed coming right to our door and then it hits our old equipment.”
Students, teachers, administrators and advocates of online learning are looking to lawmakers to propel change. Michigan Virtual University has outlined six priorities for the Legislature, including creation of a center for online learning research and innovation and the elimination of caps on the number of cyberschools allowed in the state.
Last week, the House Education Committee approved Senate Bill 619, which would allow for expanding the cyberschool ranks. However, the committee amended the measure to include a cap of 15 schools in 2013 and 30 after that — as opposed to the original version’s removal of any caps, reported the Gongwer News Service. The full House is expected to take up the bill this week.
“Years ago, Michigan was the second state to implement an online requirement for graduation,” said Linda Frederickson, director of marketing, sales and communications for Michigan Virtual University. “State policy needs to keep Michigan in the front of leading new opportunities for students.”
Natasha Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Lansing, who has covered education in North Carolina and interned at several Associated Press bureaus.