Online Courses an Increasingly Popular Option

Michigan Virtual University began in the year 2000 with an enrollment of 100 students. Today, it provides more than 150 classes to 21,000 people across the state.

President and CEO Jamey Fitzpatrick said the idea then was to provide online AP courses to the 45 percent of Michigan schools that didn't offer them.

"We're really providing an opportunity for kids to have access to a learning opportunity they just otherwise wouldn't have," he said.

But it's not just AP courses. At Williamston High School, which uses MVU classes, students are allowed to enroll in any elective course that isn't offered. Principal Jeffrey Thoenes says most of the time, that's things like foreign languages. WHS only offers Spanish in house.

"We have a need among our students," said Thoenes. "We don't have a way to fill it conventionally or traditionally, so we use the online component to basically shore up our curriculum."

About 40 Williamston students will participate this year, according to Thoenes. A teacher will oversee the students in the computer lab during third and fourth periods as they gradually complete their courses over the semester or the year.

"The classes are rigorous," said Thoenes. "They align with the Michigan Merit Curriculum. The company knows the standards they have for curriculum and they align those benchmarks to meet our needs."

Michigan Virtual University uses Michigan-certified educators too. It's one of several groups that has sprouted up recently. According to the Lansing State Journal, five new cyber schools (defined as providing a completely online education) are set to open this year.

A 2013 law allows public school students to enroll in a maximum of two online courses per year.

At Michigan Virtual University, teachers say courses aren't just clicking through web pages. Audio, video and interactive elements accompany the lessons. And while they acknowledge answering individual questions in a timely manner is a significant hurdle, teachers say they are still able to provide feedback.

"Sometimes in education that wait time is ok," said Jamie Dewitt, a MVU math teacher. "It's good to struggle with a problem or struggle with a solution. We make sure we're always available to students within a specific time window. They know we're going to get back to them within a day."

And while some say online courses are a way to slack off and breeze by, educators say their experience is quite the opposite.

"You are the learner," said Dewitt. "You are the one that has to go get the knowledge and bring it in. And so there's a responsibility for your own learning."

Jeffrey Thoenes says that attitude is particularly prevalent in summer schools. He says they feel like they're a part of their own learning process instead of it being forced on them. Plus, he says, kids like the flexibility of being able to take courses on their own time.

"You could do it in the morning if you're a morning person, you could do it at night, you could go through it quickly to get it done, you could pace yourself through the whole course, it's totally up to you and kids love that freedom," Thoenes said. "As a result our passing rate for credit recovery through Michigan Virtual High School as an educational tool has increased."

But even so, educators doubt that the majority of students will pursue completely online schools in the future. MVU sees itself instead as a supplement to what schools currently offer.

"I think the vast majority of kids want to continue to go to school, they want to continue to have that social aspect that's really, really important for young people," said Fitzpatrick. "But they're going to want to take part of their coursework online."

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