DG Martin’s One on One: Good results from virtual education don’t come cheap

Mention online education around some of my friends and you will get an emotional reaction.

Some senior university faculty members teach classes filled with several hundred students and they worry that famous online lecturers could take their places. Others wonder if they can transfer their talents to the online market and, if so, how much compensation they can demand for their extra efforts.

Public school advocates worry that private businesses will persuade decision makers to replace more expensive traditional classroom-based instruction with programs delivered directly to students’ computers. The result, they fear, will be high profits to the providers and a loss of hands-on support from classroom teachers and fellow students.

Whatever our worries about online education, our state should be braced for changes. Governor Pat McCrory’s challenging remarks about the role of universities, discussion of further drastic cuts in the higher education budget, new proposals for education vouchers, consideration of approval for off-site, profit-making charter schools, and a host of other possible “improvements” let everyone know that change — big change — is coming.

But worries about negative aspects of pending changes ought not lead people to oppose online educational tools that improve a classroom teacher’s effectiveness or provide supplemental instruction that a stretched-out local school cannot offer.

Whenever I think about current educational challenges, I remember how important the classroom teachers at North Mecklenburg High School were to my educational development. Their caring, hands-on approach to teaching and mentoring made up for a lack of resources.

However, one of my best classes was similar to some of the online or virtual classes now available to public school students in North Carolina. Back then, in the late 1950s, a young teacher named Joe Foster taught physics. It would have been tough for him to teach it by himself. But thanks to funding by the Ford Foundation, he got the help of a set of excellent 30-minute filmed lectures and demonstrations by Dr. Harvey White, an experienced University of California (Berkeley) professor.

Highly organized and articulate, White made complicated physics understandable and kept the class on track. Mr. Foster gave his full attention to hands-on help and follow-up discussion.

The combination of the filmed lecture and the on-site teacher gave students in our rural high school a world-class experience.

Something like this effective combination of on-site and outside resources is available thanks to the North Carolina Virtual Public School. Since 2007 it has offered specialized online courses not available in rural schools and a program to give students who fail a course another chance to succeed with the additional support from an online teacher.

In 2012, one of the virtual school’s teachers, Leslie Fetzer of Holly Springs, won recognition as National Online Teacher of the Year.

Speaking with her about her work convinced me of two things. First, specialized online instruction like the kind Fetzer provides is very effective. Secondly, because the regular, individualized attention she gives each student is intensive and time-consuming, it is not cheap.

When Ian Quillen of “Education Week,” asked about her typical day, Fetzer said, “There are some fundamentals that I do every day. There’s grading, so that everything that was submitted, we grade it and give feedback within 24 hours, and that feedback is always directive. We’re also going to always communicate, and that happens all day long. … I do some reteaching of the content; I just break it down into manageable chunks and teach it in a different way than is already there as part of the course content.”

Giving teachers like Leslie Fetzer a way to help challenged students all over the state have a chance for success they might otherwise missed makes the state’s virtual school a blessing, well worth taxpayer funding.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch.” During UNC-TV’s Festival, the program airs Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.

Martin’s Thursday, March 14, guest at 5 p.m. is Sharon Draper author of “Out of My Mind.” The program will also air at Wednesday March 13, at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4). In addition, airing at 11:30 Wednesday on UNC-MX will be a classic Bookwatch program featuring Virginia Holman author of Rescuing Patty Hearst.”

A grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council provides crucial support for North Carolina Bookwatch.

In her new novel aimed especially at young people and parents, “Out of My Mind,” award-winning author Sharon Draper introduces us to Melody, an 11-year-old girl who cannot speak. She is so afflicted with Cerebral Palsy that she can hardly move. Even though she is the smartest person in her school, she is treated as though she has no intellectual potential. Then a series of events and important help from others give Melody the opportunity to show her stuff and teach us lessons about the dangers of underrating the potential of those with physical challenges.

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