Going to school by computer: Minnesota’s online classes for K-12 students


As more of our daily interactions occur in cyberspace, so too Minnesota’s K-12 schools are looking to the internet for instruction and communication tools to fit the students’ different needs. Minnesota schools already have a very robust online element, and will have even more with push from  pro-online education legislation. This article, exploring the different formats and reasons for online education, is the first in a series. The next will explore best practices in on-line learning, followed by an example of online learning as an alternative for students who don’t fit neatly into the school system.  

Online learning takes many different forms. Sometimes it is a teacher using internet resources in the classroom. At other times, students take a fully-online course, working either from home or in the computer lab or media center at their school. In blended or hybrid courses, the students meet with the teacher once or twice a week. In the most fully online format, students go to an online-only charter or alternative school. The Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) provides a list of all the accredited online learning providers statewide. 

Why online education?

Making up credits: Nineteen-year-old Danielle Moberg had some personal issues at the end of her senior year at De La Salle High School, and didn’t graduate. She decided to make up her remaining credits through MPS Online, the online learning program of Minneapolis Public Schools. This year she took English, government, health and gym classes online, which she said worked really well. She likes the format because she can work at her own pace, and she can always get help when she needs it. She comes into the physical building twice a week, so she’ll talk to the teachers in person. The rest of the week, she works from home. Next year, she plans to attend MCTC, but she doesn’t think she’ll take online courses there. “I want to try the college setting thing,” she said.

Scheduling issues: Austen Fowler is a senior at Grand Rapids High School. He just takes one online course, in American literature. Last semester he took health. Fowler said the main reason he decided to take an online course was the flexibility it offered him. He’s a golfer, and he tends to miss a lot of school during golf season. Taking the online course allows him to work when he has the time. Fowler has found the online version of the American literature class fairly similar to the in-class version, which he took in the fall semester. In-class discussions are replaced by an online discussion board, where there is an opportunity for interaction with the other students as well as the teacher. Fowler said that at times it can be difficult to motivate himself to do his work, when there is not a physical teacher there.  It helps that his school requires students taking online courses to take an study hall period to do their work, so he works either in the library or at home.

Austen’s mother, Carrie Fowler, who is a counselor at the schools, says that she thinks it has worked out well for her son, especially because English is not one of his favorite subjects. “I think he’s getting a good education,” she said. “It seems to be challenging him enough,” she said. On the other hand, she can’t imagine him taking a rigorous math or science course online.

An alternative to “regular” school:  Laura Ford is 18, and has spent her senior year taking online classes at MPS online, as well as PSEO courses during the fall semester. Ford chose the online option because “it was really hard for me at my old school.” She went to Eagle Ridge Academy in Eden Prairie, and while she said it wasn’t a bad school, she needed a change. This semester, Ford takes Algebra II, media art, government, economics, biology and physical science. She said she likes it because she doesn’t have to do “homework” per se, rather, the work is incorporated into her school day. “ I have a problem with homework,” she said.

Ford typically comes into the MPS Online Center on Chicago and 33rd Street every day for seven hours, after skating in the mornings at 6 a.m. She said she’s gotten to know the other online students that come into the center. “If you have friends, you can talk to your friends you’re not seeing in school,” she said.

Ford said she gets a lot of support from her teachers, both online and in person. “I feel like I’m learning more useful things,” she said. In her old school, what she learned was useful, but “something about it got lost with how I learn,” she said. “I just learn differently.”

Not for everyone:  Broderick Burks, who also attends MPS Online, moved to Minneapolis a year and a half ago from Virginia, where he went to a military school. When he moved here, he was living in Uptown, and his mom didn’t think it was the best neighborhood to go to school in. (He would have gone to South High School.) While he likes his classes, Burks misses playing football, which he can’t do if he’s not enrolled in a brick and mortar school. He now lives in Saint Paul, and plans to attend a traditional high school next year to be able to play again.

Online in Greater Minnesota

Grand Rapids High School, which Austen Fowler attends, is one of a consortium of schools in greater Minnesota that use the services of INFINITY Online. INFINITY serves students primarily in grades 9-12 in rural districts in Northern and Central Minnesota. The state-certified special school district started in 2004, and this year they served 1200 students, according to INFINITY director Jo McClure.

INFINITY works with 45 local school districts, offering online classes as an extension, McClure said. They get their curriculum from a variety of vendors. Unlike online courses in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, they are online-only, rather than blended. That means there are no face-to-face meetings with the teachers. The teachers for the courses are from one of the local school districts in the consortium, so a teacher from the Brainerd school district might be teaching a class to students in other areas.

McClure said that the majority of the students served by INFINITY are choosing online courses for the flexibility in scheduling. Because of budget cuts, certain courses may only be offered at one period of the day, or not every semester, so students like Austen Fowler are able to take those courses despite their busy schedules. While courses vary, many  use video, host web conferences every couple weeks, and use a course management system called Desire2Learn (D2L, which is also used by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) system. D2L includes  includes email, paging, texting, formal discussion forums, and an online technical help desk as communication tools to aid students. All teachers are also required to do an introductory phone call at the beginning of the course, McClure said, and phone calls can be used later as necessary. “It’s very individualized,” she said. “It depends on what the student needs.” 

“Most of our online teachers also teach face to face,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, they say they get to know their online students better than their face to face students, because they might not have time. It’s a neat concept.”

While the majority of the students choose online courses from INFINITY for scheduling reasons, McClure said that about 10-15 percent choose it because they need a different learning environment than a traditional school setting. Another 10-15 percent of the students take online courses because of medical issues or because they are travelling, and for some reason they need a short-term semester, she said.

Really the big key piece of INFINITY’s philosophy, though, is that the online courses kids are taking are supplemental. “We still want them to be affiliated with their school in some way,” she said.