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  • Shannon Sutherland


Calgary Herald: Thursday March 29, 2007

At the tender age of 17, one may not quite be able to say Cristina Rosati was in the fast lane, but she was definitely going places. Still a few courses shy of completing high school, Rosati left the classroom to accept a position with an oilfield services firm downtown where she began to dabble in database management – while completing her Grade 12 online.

Every morning, while groggy teens across the city were dragging themselves out of bed and digging through backpacks for enough change to buy a sugar fix strong enough to get them through an 8:30 a.m. calculus class, Rosati was heading into the heart of corporate Calgary.

“Calgary is booming, and I figured I might as well take advantage of that. So I decided to start working while I finished high school,” says Rosati. “I didn’t see the point in spending an entire year at school when I only needed a few courses.”

Now Rosati is pretty much in charge of the front office at Run Digital Inc. – a lot of responsibility for an 18-year-old. Many of the skills she uses there, however, were honed during her online education.

“It really taught me how to prioritize and manage my time,” says Rosati. “It also taught me accountability, because there were times I did get behind, but then I worked twice as hard to get back on track. I have always been self-motivated and independent, though, and my grades were actually higher with the online program.”

There are well over a dozen online schools serving the Calgary area, although some of the larger programs, such as CBe-learn have started to become dominant.

In 2003, the CBe-learn program enrolled just under 3,000 students. By the time registrations are complete for 2006-07, enrolment is expected to reach about 7,000, says Cathy Faber, director of innovative learning services at CBe-Learn.

“It has absolutely outstripped our expectations in terms of growth,” says Faber. “Students are more aware of the success they can achieve in this environment, the technology has improved and our success (course completion) rates have gone up 18 to 20 per cent.”

Pioneers in online learning such as Rocky View Virtual School are enrolling students for all kinds of reasons these days as people’s perceptions and expectations continue to evolve, says Todd Kiernan, principal with Rocky View School Division’s alternative and online programs.

“In the younger grades we’re seeing a lot of home-based education students whose parents are looking for educational alternatives in line with their belief systems – such as those who want a Christian curriculum,” says Kiernan. “As the kids get older, we see more students who are educated at home, but who need some support as the curriculum becomes more complex.”

Many of their previous objections to online education are fading fast.

For instance, parents who were concerned that the technology might be a barrier to learning are finding out that’s most often not the case at all.

“We’re seeing that with the new generation of digital learners, many spend the first three months learning how to use the technology and then they spend the remainder of the year using the technology to learn,” says Alison Hancox, a teacher/facilitator with the Argyll Centre, which is a part of Edmonton Public Schools but has a Calgary campus.

“And that gap keeps shrinking. We start kids in Grade 4, and it continues to amaze me how quickly they become effective online learners. We do a lot more live, synchronous learning – rather than just trying to do what we do offline online – and I think it’s really changing the way kids learn.”

Another concern for parents is that their children will get distracted while learning online.

“Net-geners were born and raised in the digital world, and they often learn much differently than us,” says Faber.

“Often while they’re learning, they have their MSN (instant messaging software) open and they’re listening to music. Students are telling us that’s how they learn best –and there is evidence to support that.”

A University of Nebraska study found that listening to music – classical or popular – had no effect, either positive or negative, on math test scores of students.

Another study found that tuning into music keeps adult workers switched on. Almost one third of American employees surveyed said they listen to music while working through use of an iPod or other music player, says a survey conducted by Harris Interactive for staffing company Spheron Corp.

So if students find listening to music makes learning more enjoyable, Faber thinks that’s just fine.

She says, however, learning online is not for everyone, and students who aren’t willing to reach out for help when they hit road-blocks are not as likely to be successful.

“We guarantee that you’ll run into problems – either technical in nature, or in terms of time management, or with learning the course material,” says Faber. “It’s inevitable. That’s why it’s so important that these students understand how to address these problems. We offer wonderful support, but if we don’t know someone needs it, or if the student doesn’t access it, then there is going to be trouble.”

Rosati said she tapped into the support available – including some one-on-one tutoring – several times.

“It was perfect for me – but maybe not for everyone,” says Rosati. “I guess I might have missed out on the big traditional graduation ceremony, but other than that, I really enjoyed it and I think I performed better than I would have in a high school. It was an ideal situation for me.”

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