May 26, 2012
Calif. schools expand lessons via computer
By CHRISTINA HOAG Associated Press
LOS ANGELES—Math is so popular at Ritter Elementary School in Watts that kids arrive before the morning bell and line up to do extra work before class, but it's not the subject that's the real attraction as much as the method—computers.
"It's a lot more fun this way," said 8–year–old Erica Quezada, fitting colorful cubes into a shape on her screen as another third–grader leans over to point out another way she can solve the problem.
Stand–and–deliver is increasingly giving way to point–and–click in schools across California and elsewhere as computers are being used to supplement, and in some approaches, supplant textbooks and teachers.
Known as "blended learning," the concept has been particularly embraced by charter and independently run schools as a way to boost student achievement quickly at time when dwindling state dollars are resulting in larger class sizes and fewer programs. But it's also generated some controversy as critics see it as a ploy to reduce teachers.
"We're seeing a lot of innovation in California," said Susan Patrick, president and chief executive of the International Association of K–12 Online Learning.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has the highest number of charter schools in the country—about 200— numerous autonomous schools have adopted a variety of classroom models that move away from the traditional lecture method to an approach that combines more personalized instruction with computers.
Alliance for College–Ready Public Schools operates three high schools with classes of around 45 students divided into three groups of 15: one working with a teacher, one working on computer exercises and one working on projects. For advanced courses like physics, students participate in videoconference classes with one teacher serving all schools.
Results are promising. The average reading level for incoming freshmen at one school was fourth grade; after a year of a blended learning, they averaged eighth grade, said Principal Mickie Tubbs.
The model used by nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which operates Ritter and 21 other low–performing schools, involves a hybrid class in which teachers use software projected onto a whiteboard for math and reading lessons, followed up by exercises in computer labs or on laptops shared among classrooms.
Ritter saw 12 percent more students scoring proficient or above in math over the year before. Other Partnership schools using blended learning have seen similar gains, convincing administrators to expand the program to all schools.
"We knew this was going to be the key to accelerating achievement," said Marshall Tuck, Partnership chief executive, adding that the model calls for class sizes to remain the same.
Other organizations are using blended learning to serve specific groups of students.
With reduced funds this year for summer school, LA's Promise, a nonprofit that runs three schools, is trying an online program for high school students who failed a subject. Classes will comprise 45 students with one teacher.
Researchers at the University of Southern California are launching the USC Hybrid High School this fall for students likely to drop out. The school will be akin to an independent study model where students progress through computerized curriculums at their own pace with the help of a teacher.
The school, to start with 150 ninth–graders, will be open year–round, 12 hours a day with weekend hours, so students who have to work or care for children at home can easily attend.
The key with the computerized curriculums is that teachers can give more individual attention to students as they go from student to student on the computer. Students, meanwhile, must active participate in the lessons, clicking to complete and go to the next level, rather than simply listening to a lecture.
Teachers monitor students' progress through the program and immediately see when problem arises. Kids who might be embarrassed to raise their hand in class to say they don't understand can email the teacher or click a help button.
"It lets me know the concepts they're having trouble with," said Ritter third–grade teacher Jorge Alvarado, adding he doesn't have the added chore of keeping kids interested. "It really engages them. It's the video–game mentality."
Studies have shown that students learn a "bit better" with computers than in traditional classrooms, said Richard E. Clark, director of USC's Center for Cognitive Technology. "More effort goes into developing the instructional programs," he said. Blended learning is not without critics.
Some say the computer sessions turn into social sessions as kids tend chat with neighbors and there's little way for a teacher to check if students did their own work. Others say it's simply a drive to reduce costs by getting rid of teachers.
"There's absolutely no evidence that blended learning or online learning can replace the attention a teacher can provide," said Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters, a New York City–based group. "It takes real–life people out of the equation."
Proponents say schools have little choice as state funding continues to plummet. "We simply cannot continue to operate as we have with fewer dollars," said Judy Burton, president and chief executive of the Alliance for College–Ready Public Schools.
The Alliance uses 17 teachers for a 600–student blended learning school, as compared to 26 for a traditional school.
Some point to software companies as the drivers of blended learning, resulting in laws in Arizona, Michigan and Idaho that require schools to implement online courses.
"This is opening up an enormous market," said Gene Glass, senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colo. "These companies are waking up to the fact that public education involves billions and billions of dollars a year."
For school districts, the biggest drawback is the startup cost of buying computers and software, and training teachers.
The Partnership cobbled together about $4 million over the past three years in grants and philanthropic gifts. CEO Tuck anticipated that bond money and textbook savings would make up the additional $3.5 million to complete the rollout at all of the Partnership's schools.
LA's Promise is also pooling corporate and foundation grants to get a blended learning program going at its 1,200–student middle school in the fall. President and Chief Executive Veronica Melvin estimated it would cost close to $1 million.
The cost is a huge hurdle for districts such as LAUSD, which is forming a plan to roll out blended learning centers at selected schools, and eventually expanding it to all high schools.
School board member Tamar Galatzan, who spearheaded the blended learning plan, noted that it would take millions of dollars, but California districts face a national mandate to assess students' computer skills in 2014–15.
"It is our obligation to serve our students and prepare them for the 21st century, but getting technology to every student in this district in an era of ever–shrinking education budgets is going to be a monumental challenge," she said.
In the meantime, kids at Ritter Elementary avidly click through their math problems. Edwin Tovar, 9, works on rotating a cartoon–like figure of JiJi the penguin to make the penguin walk in a lesson on spatial reasoning. "I'm learning more stuff I didn't even know," he said.e said.
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