August 15, 2008

Local Schools, Diocese to Offer Online Courses

By AJ Panian

The principal at Ligonier Valley Middle School wants to see students on his watch develop skills compatible with the latest educational technology.

"We want to provide them with every opportunity they can to succeed in this day and age," Dave Steimer said.

To that end, Steimer is among a group of educators working with the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit to develop a ground-breaking program to offer students a chance to take online courses at their schools and beyond.

Beginning this fall, the WIU E-Academy is slated to begin a phase of faculty-student interplay at Ligonier Valley, eight other county districts, and the Greensburg Catholic Diocese, said Timothy Hammill, WIU supervisor of educational technology integration services.

"This program is truly a product of Westmoreland County school districts," Hammill said. "To my knowledge, the schools in this county are doing something with this program that isn't happening anywhere else in the state."

And it's nothing like a cyber-charter school.

"It will not siphon away district money like cyber-charter schools do," Hammill said. "At the same time, it will give students a taste of the freedom cyber-charter students have."

In 2006, superintendents from Ligonier Valley, Burrell, Kiski Area, New Ken-Arnold, Norwin, Derry Area, Penn-Trafford, Southmoreland and Mt. Pleasant school districts, along with officials of the Greensburg Catholic Diocese, began discussing ways to work together to offer students a computer-aided way to expand their learning options in an assessable manner.

"What we are doing is creating a program to build capacity within these districts and the diocese to create a solution to the issues inherent with cyber-charter school participation," Hammill said.

Such issues -- which can but don't always affect participants -- include lapses in completing course work and cheating, Hammill said.

"At times, you don't get the appropriate degree of checks and balances between the course vendor and the student. It's a big reason to be careful when conducting online learning," Hammill said.

Under the E-Academy format, 10 teachers from each district and the diocese will receive training this fall on how to provide online courses in reading, math, English and foreign languages via the Moodle Platform -- a free software package designed to help educators create effective online learning communities.

The teachers at each district will spend roughly 50 hours developing a unique curriculum that maximizes each district's strengths. No timetable has been set for its implementation.

Hammill worked with Burrell Assistant Superintendent Shannon Wagner and eight district teachers over the past school year to develop a summer credit recovery program for 156 students from 120 families.

"We have to start thinking about what's going on globally outside our four walls," Wagner said. "Some of these students were able to take vacations with their families and carry on with course work on their laptops."

The WIU E-Academy committee held its latest meeting Wednesday to compare how each school district and the diocese is preparing to implement the program.

"We'd like no duplication of course offerings so students can access curriculum online from the various schools involved," Hammill said.

In addition, every 10 teachers at each district can be trained in the WIU E-Academy program and implement the created curriculum for about $10,000, or roughly the initial cost required to educate just one cyber-charter school student, Hammill said.

"It's a whole new way of thinking about how to offer these kids knowledge," he said.

(c) 2008 Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.