NEW YORK -- The High School of Telecommunication Arts & Technology is something of a misnomer, Principal Phil Weinberg explains. The Brooklyn school's curriculum doesn't focus on telecommunications or technology any more than the next school does.
"We're a high school, like every high school in the city should be," Weinberg said.
But a new program implemented this year adds a little authenticity to the word "technology" in the verbose name. As part of New York's iLearnNYC program, the school is piloting online credit-recovery courses for some of its 1,300 students.
A burgeoning movement toward digital learning is changing the face of education in schools nationwide. A 2009 study by the Sloan Consortium estimated that more than a million K-12 students were enrolled in at least one online course during the 2007-2008 school year. In secondary schools, the most popular type of digital course is credit recovery, according to a 2010 report by the Babson Survey Research Group. And in November, the federal Department of Education released its National Ed-Tech Plan, calling for "revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering" in American schools.
The experiment at HSTAT, however, calls into question the efficacy of online courses in certain environments and reinforces the notion that a computer is no replacement for a teacher.
In the fall, Weinberg implemented two online credit-recovery courses in English and math. Students take credit recovery when they've fulfilled their seat time requirements for a class, but haven't grasped the course material well enough to receive a passing grade. The courses are essentially second chances.
In This Series:
Part 1: 'Homepage High': Teachers, Computers, No Textbooks
Part 2: ELLIS Prep: Computer Subs for AP Teacher
Plus: Digital Learning Programs Around the Country
A traditional credit-recovery class at HSTAT runs for about two hours after school twice a week and lasts six weeks. It involves a teacher and a room of students. With online credit recovery, students hypothetically work at their own pace, allowing them to speed through topics they understand and spend more time where they have trouble.
But the reality is a little different and is dependent on self-motivation.
"Ideally the online class should require less teacher time because it's more self-taught, but I still insisted on meeting once a week with them," said Amanda Painter, the math teacher who ran the online math course at HSTAT. "I didn't think that the type of student that ends up in that class would be motivated enough to do all this on their own at home."
So instead of cutting the kids loose, Painter held a one-hour session with them each week and told them to do one to two hours of work on their own at home. One of the benefits of the online module is that it keeps metrics on each student. Painter can see how much time they spend on the course, how well they do on their quizzes and even what time of day they log on.
What she found was not terribly surprising. The kids who actually did the work did well in the class. The kids who slacked off did not. And the kids who had difficulty with the math needed more time working with her in person.
"It raises questions about whether this is an appropriate learning environment for kids who are struggling," Weinberg said. "One of the frightening things about the online is the question about what is the teacher, what's the teachers role, what do teachers do? After 26 years I haven't seen anything more important than a teacher."
Digital learning programs have been expanding since 1997 when Florida opened its famed Florida Virtual School, the country's first statewide, Internet-based high school. Today, 27 states and Washington, D.C., have at least one full-time online school, according to Keeping Pace, an annual report on online learning. In December, the Digital Learning Council, headed by former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Bob Wise of West Virginia, released a report recommending major changes to the school system to increase opportunities for digital courses.
"This question of 'Does this work better?' -- that is the wrong question," Ferdig said. "The right question is: 'Under what conditions does this work well?'"
Weinberg's conclusion is that if you really want kids to learn the material -- and not just squeak past state requirements -- then you have to have a dedicated teacher working with students in credit-recovery classes.
"To be a good teacher means to understand who your kids are," Weinberg said. "There aren't any computers I've seen that can do that."
Read Part 1 of This Series: 'Homepage High': Teachers, Computers, No Textbooks
Read Part 2 of This Series: ELLIS Prep: Computer Subs for AP Teacher