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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Imagine That!

A little bit of humour for your Sunday morning...
The newest twist on distance learning
By Kristen A. Graham

Posted on Tue, Nov. 6, 2007


It all began with a soft pretzel.

A few months ago, Ken Hartman was reading the newspaper when a small blurb - an advertisement for "National Pretzel Day" - grabbed his attention.

Hartman, who is both academic director of Drexel e-Learning and a member of the Cherry Hill school board, was thunderstruck.

"If someone could celebrate Pretzel Day, why isn't there a day to celebrate the tremendous growth in education in online learning?" Hartman said.

Forget National Online Learning Day. Hartman, who's worked as a university professor and administrator for the past 25 years, conceived, coordinated, and got National Distance Learning Week on the map. The nonprofit United States Distance Learning Association even named him chairman of the celebration.

Beginning Monday, schools and universities around the country will mark the occasion with virtual open houses, awards and a series of free "webinars" - seminars available on the Web.

It's a chance to highlight a fast-growing part of the education sector.

These days, more than 2.5 million college students take online courses; more than 700,000 high school students take courses online, and "virtual" public schools exist in 40 states.

Hartman is awed by how quickly an idea he hatched a little more than six months ago has spread.

"It's caught on like wildfire," Hartman, an enthusiastic advocate, said of the celebration. "Colleges all over the country are participating, cyberschools, regular schools, business."

There will be webinars on the Holocaust that will bring in guest speakers from around the world. There will be sessions on integrating virtual education into K-12 classrooms and blending home schooling with virtual education.

Drexel is hosting a flurry of activities, including an awards ceremony - presumptive Mayor-Elect Michael Nutter is scheduled to attend the Tuesday event - to honor excellence in online education.

During his decade as educational media technology director at Egg Harbor Township School District, Michael Sweeder has watched online learning explode - and evolve.

Nine years ago, distance education came to Egg Harbor Township in the form of a single videoconferencing room equipped with $10,000 worth of gadgets. Now, each school in the district has its own setup, each of which costs just a few hundred dollars.

Egg Harbor Township uses videoconferencing for virtual class trips and course sharing between schools. Particularly popular are programs that supplement students' education - connections with zoos, science centers, museums.

The programs are cost effective and fun for students, Sweeder said.

"We take kids to a place they normally couldn't go - instead of putting them on a bus and taking them to Philadelphia, the Art Museum comes to them," he said.

As part of National Distance Learning Week, students in the high school's "Holocaust: Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity" class will attend a virtual lecture given by Hartman, whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor.

Though distance learning may never replace face-to-face interactions, Sweeder has seen firsthand the benefits of high school students taking online college courses, of students from one elementary school being able to loop into the lessons from another elementary school.

"It's just another tool in the toolbox, and it's becoming more readily available," Sweeder said.

Distance education is nothing new - universities have offered correspondence courses for 100 years, but the advent of the Internet has changed the way teachers teach and students learn.

"Every student in my class is now an online researcher, and they can challenge me in ways they never would before," Hartman said. "It makes teaching more fun, it makes learning more fun."

Universities have been quicker than K-12 schools to embrace the changes, but every year, more primary and secondary schools begin to use distance education as a way to bolster their offerings, according to the United States Distance Learning Association.

"I think we're starting to see a shift at the high school level," said Hartman. "Online education gives schools flexibility to reallocate their resources so they can meet their greatest needs."

Convenience is key, but in the end, Hartman said, it boils down to what a new, web-savvy generation of students is demanding.

"Kids are ready for this," Hartman said. "They're at the starting gate, waiting for it to swing open. The only thing that's keeping them back is adults."

Contact reporter Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/schooltalk.
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