NEW YORK -- Norma Vega, principal of the ELLIS Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, faces a conundrum familiar to many high school principals: Limited resources restrict the number of classes she can offer her students. And though she tries to give them every opportunity to prepare for college, with very few students ready for Advanced Placement classes, she hasn't hired an AP teacher.
"It's about what's most efficient and what's most effective," Vega said. "If I don't have 25 kids, how do I justify hiring an AP teacher that I don't have at least a full class for?"
And yet, 12 of her 241 students are taking either AP English or AP American history this year -- just not in the traditional sense. They're taking it online.
A nascent digital revolution is taking place in some American schools, where administrators and teachers are rethinking traditional classes and experimenting with online learning. A study conducted last year by the Sloan Consortium found that 75 percent of school districts surveyed nationwide offered online or blended learning courses during the 2007-2008 school year. And online learning isn't just spreading, it's spreading quickly. The number of K-12 students enrolled in online courses increased 47 percent in those two years.
In September, New York City began infusing its classrooms with three types of online courses: Advanced Placement, credit recovery and blended learning. The test program, called iLearnNYC, rolled out digital learning programs to 41 schools.
Part 1: 'Homepage High': Teachers, Computers, No Textbooks
Part 3: Tech High: Computer No Substitute for a Teacher
Plus: Digital Learning Programs Around the Country
The city's Education Department gave ELLIS 14 laptops and licenses to the online courses, which are designed and sold by online course providers. Students log on to their accounts and access their lessons, quizzes and tests online. They work independently at home, engage in online discussions with one another and meet twice a week during their 45-minute lunch period with an ELLIS teacher, who acts as a facilitator.
The school has one other unique characteristic. Students at ELLIS -- short for English Language Learners and International Support -- are all recently arrived immigrants with a wide range of educational backgrounds. They are all English language learners, the moniker given to people whose first language isn't English.
In a school with such a diverse student body, differentiated learning is incredibly important. ELLIS provides independent learning courses for its students who are preliterate when they arrive in the country, for example.
"So why not do also the same for the kids on the upper end," Vega said. "It's about engaging them at the level they're in."
One of the great promises of online learning is that students can direct their own education. They can, for instance, speed through a section they understand well and spend more time on a section where they struggle.
"In most traditional classrooms everyone has to learn at the same pace," explained Susan Lowes, director of research and evaluation at the Institute for Learning Technologies. "So some kids get bored, some get lost."
Raghu Chimoriya, 19, was born in Bhutan and moved to the U.S. from Nepal. He is one of 12 students handpicked to pilot an AP course this year. He spends an hour and a half each day working online on the English curriculum.
"I never had such technological stuff in my country," Chimoriya said.
But while the online courses give a lot of control to the students, their success ultimately depends on the teacher who is tasked with monitoring their progress. In the ELLIS AP English class, that person is Stephanie Grasso, an English teacher who works with the AP class on top of her regular duties.
Grasso checks the students' work in the online module, has the ability to override their auto-generated grades and leads their biweekly meetings. In December, the AP class was finishing a unit on feminism, reading books like "The Awakening," "Madame Bovary" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls." The online course required each student to read two books. But, because the English vocabulary was difficult, Grasso reduced the work load.
"I have to sort of gauge where everybody is and then actually decide what's manageable and what's not," she said. "It can't all be online right now. It's meant to be purely online, but I just don't feel like we're quite there."
They are also beholden to the whims of technology, which doesn't always work the way it should. The AP English course began a month late because of glitches with user names, passwords and inadequate Internet access. The delay meant Grasso had to tailor each lesson so the students wouldn't fall behind.
"When a student is engaged in an online course, the instruction comes from the online course," Vedoe explained. "What a teacher will do in a program using our courses is work one on one with a student."
Glitches aside, Principal Vega says the program is a valuable way to expose kids to college-level academics and technology. She plans to add AP calculus to the curriculum next year.
"They're smarter than we are when it comes to computers. I mean, my kids can twitter in Arabic," Vega said. "So we're missing a whole arena of learning, just missing it, and I don't want to miss out on it."
Read Part 1 of This Series: 'Homepage High': Teachers, Computers, No Textbooks
Read Part 3 of This Series: Tech High: Computer No Substitute for a Teacher