ANNAPOLIS – Jacob Stiffler, 17, walks into the Easton High School classroom, sits in the corner and attentively listens to the calculus lecture every school day.
But he’s never met his teacher face-to-face and there are no other students in his class.
Jacob is one of a handful of Talbot County students taking online courses, but that number may increase this spring.
The Maryland State Department of Education is exploring ways to expand the state’s online learning programs, allowing students to take classes that would otherwise not be offered because of teacher shortages or low enrollment.
“I’m really interested in math (but) I finished all the other classes,” Jacob said.
Currently, 10 of Maryland’s 24 school districts offer some form of online curriculum, but each independently develops courses.
In order to muster more county support, the state education department has been reviewing and coordinating online pilot programs for this spring and next fall.
State officials have reviewed online courses in physics, calculus and AP literature, among others, and hope to eventually offer virtual classes in health, art history and accounting.
With online courses, students typically turn in assignments and hold classroom discussions through the Internet. Depending on the circumstances and school system, students usually use school computers and have a designated class time to be online.
Virtual classrooms have become popular across the nation, including in Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.
In Maryland, several counties are rapidly adopting this trend.
Charles County Public Schools, for example, mainly use online curriculum to encourage students to take advanced placement courses that either conflict with other class times or do not have enough students for a whole class. Students who are homebound because of illness may also take the courses. Eight students took an online course last school year, the first year the district offered them, said John Cox, Charles County’s assistant superintendent of instruction. That number has doubled this school year. “You’re always aware of schedule conflicts, especially with AP classes,” Cox said. “The more we looked at (online curriculum), the more pleased we were with it. We don’t entirely rely on it, but we use it as a resource.” Funding, however, could hinder the state’s virtual learning initiative, said Liz Glowa, the education department’s Web-based learning coordinator. Both the state and individual school districts fund online programs, but state grant money is only guaranteed through June. Jay Fridkis, Howard County chief technology officer, said the poor economy is the main reason his county does not offer online courses. “It’s a budgetary issue,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity to do that.” State educators hope they can tap new federal funds to finance the state’s virtual initiative in the future, Glowa said. At the December state Board of Education meeting, several school board members worried about students losing human interaction and the classroom experience. “I think the issue was to not let this be the replacement of in-class learning,” said board President Marilyn Maultsby. She advocated its use on a case-by-case basis for students who have no other way to take the course. Online classes expand a child’s opportunities, but will never be used to replace in-classroom education, Glowa said. She said she recommends students take no more than two online classes a semester.
Jacob would never have been able to take the college-level calculus course if it wasn’t for the online offerings. Jacob, a senior who plans to study math or science in college, said the online course allows him to study using his own learning style. “You get to work at your own speed,” Jacob said. “I can work ahead . . . and I can take special time if I need it.”