July 11, 2011
Principals are grappling with the implications of a state policy change that allows them to award credit for shorter courses that students take online.
A regulation passed in June by the Board of Regents allows city high schools to award credit in online courses or blended learning courses, where the class is conducted partly online and partly in a traditional classroom setting, regardless of how much time students actually spend in the classes. City Department of Education officials lobbied the Regents in support of the change.
A dozen principals discussed the new regulations today at the meeting of a monthly panel led by Alisa Berger and Sarah Scrogin, two principals who have spearheaded activities within the Innovation Zone, the DOE’s subset of technology-centered schools. (Notably, Berger’s high school, the iSchool, and Scrogin’s, East Bronx Academy for the Future, have worked together in the past on intra-city distance learning classes.)
As members of the Innovation Zone’s selective iLearn cohort, which numbered 40 last year but is jumping to 127 this fall, the principals who attend the monthly meetings have used technology to reshaped their schedules, supplies, and teachers’ workloads. When it comes to using technology to change teaching and learning, the principals usually have a lot to say.
But when Scrogin asked them how they were thinking about responding to the change in seat time rules, they were quiet.
Then the questions began. Would any online course count? (Yes.) And blended learning classes too? (Yes, again.) What does online learning look like inside a school? (That’s complicated, and pretty much up to principals.)
Schools at the vanguard of using technology have embraced the change. At the iSchool, Berger is considering asking her teachers to upload videos of their “mini-lesson” each day and requiring students to view it before coming to class. That way, direct instruction can take place outside of seat time and teachers can use time in school to work with groups of students formed around their shared comprehension — or lack thereof — of the day’s lesson.
But other principals expressed concerns about implementing the new policy. Some argued that some classes, such as gym, are best conducted offline. Others worried about making changes that would later be deemed unacceptable by the city or state. One pointed to recent news reports of schools that have been shown to have awarded credit to students who did not deserve it and worried that their schools would be lumped together. Another said she is already running a “three-ring circus” and could not imagine launching a completely new program.
And a middle school principal argued that the emphasis on seat time — the agenda of today’s meeting only because of the recent policy change — feels misplaced. She worried aloud that her school would be excluded from iLearn efforts that are focused on maximizing the change, because her students face no seat time requirement at all.
Taking advantage of the change won’t be easy, but it is important, Scrogin told the principals.
“It would be bad if we pushed hard to get the waiver and then we didn’t use it,” she said.
Berger said she thought the principals’ uncertainty not from a lack of interest but from the experience of suddenly being faced with a set of options that were impossible just a few weeks ago.
“Everyone sees it as an opportunity,” she said. “But it’s been there for so long. Now we’re starting to think — now that we’ve gotten rid of this arcane rule.”