Online high school to get statewide boost from University of Nebraska

March 19, 2013, 6:30 a.m. ·

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Nebraska Independent Study High School has no walls, no classrooms, no sports teams, no prom and no snow days. It does have a reputation that attracts students from all over the world. At any given time about 2500 students take courses offered online by the school. It started more than 80 years ago as a set of correspondence courses established by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Now efforts are underway to give the school a higher profile in its home state. This summer management of the online high school will move from UNL over to the president of the University of Nebraska system, according to the school’s director Barbara Wolf Shousha.

Shousha told NET News the decision was made after discussions between NU President J.B. Milliken and UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. Giving the high school access to the statewide resources of the NU system comes at a time when Governor Dave Heinemann has highlighted the value of ‘virtual’ educational opportunities in Nebraska.

“I think the governor and other Nebraska leaders really are interested in making that more available,” Shousha said. “I think technology is one way to do that.”

A screen grab of an English literature course offered by the Independent Study High School.

Technology started shaping teaching methods at the

Independent High School

in the 1990s. The school’s first courses, offered in 1929, were all on paper and mailed back and forth between student and teacher. Today the Internet replaces the mailbox as the delivery system.

More than 100 courses are available, ranging from English to the sciences and from fundamental skills to advance placement courses providing college-bound students an opportunity to get credit hours while still in high school.

Currently UNL faculty and masters degree students create teaching plans for the courses. The content must meet state and national academic standards. Shousha says the school is committed to “very rigorous quality courses.”

Now the school can draw on faculty from all four campuses, Lincoln, Omaha, Kearney, and the Medical Center in Omaha.

“What is different is simply there is more to draw off” to create and improve courses, Shousha said.

“Being able to work with the faculty is a great benefit,” Shousha said, adding the high school’s expertise could be beneficial to the state’s universities. “There has been a move to online education at the campus-level so being able to share best practices will be a great benefit.”

It does not appear this was a budget decision for the University system. The Independent Study High School is self-sustaining; paying its own way with course fees charged students or the school districts utilizing classes.

The target customer for the high school has been students, mostly teenagers, who are not able to or don’t wish to attend regularly scheduled classes in a traditional building.

Barry Stark, the school’s principal, said online learning “provides a niche market for students who are more comfortable learning independently” who don’t work wish to be “regulated by a 50-minute class period.”

School administrators share stories about the wide variety of students who have earned credits at the school They include a member of the Olympic Equestrian Team to home-schooled missionaries to circus performers. Pop singer Brittney Spears took classes.

Independent Study HS graduate Joe Bruckler plays semi-professional hockey. (Courtesy Photo)

Minor league

hockey player Joe Bruckler

completed his last two years of high school by taking online courses. He would not have been able to attend regular classes during the day because “it’s almost like a professional hockey schedule,” Bruckler said. “You’re doing something every day and practices start during mid-day” when school is in session.

Bruckler plays center with the South Shore Kings in the Eastern Junior Hockey League in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Most nights he’ll review his course work online, take tests and finish papers before sending back to teachers who are 1500 miles to the west.

I chose to have a more flexible schedule so I could be 100 percent participating in my hockey team,” Bruckler said. “It’s a choice.”

The University of Nebraska hopes more school districts and individual students inside the state’s borders will start to take advantage of that flexibility. The Independent Study High School officially moves out of the control of the Lincoln campus and into the NU President’s office this summer.

On average only about 11 percent of the students enrolled at the school are state residents, according to administrators. There is no stated target number on how many in-state students they hope to attract. They will make the case more aggressively to local school districts with budgets strapped the opportunity to give students access to instruction a high school could not otherwise afford makes sense for everyone.

As an example, Principal Stark said their approach is “very economically feasible” since some public and private schools cannot afford to offer a full range of advanced placement courses. The online option can be attractive to fill what Stark called “education gaps” because “if a school has one student that wants to take (advance placement) chemistry, we will offer it at a fraction of what even a half-time teacher will cost."

Recently the school developed a pilot program offering courses to Nebraska schools at no charge and Shousha said they “had a great response to that.” She heard from administrators who said there was “a need for that kind of flexibility” in their curriculum offerings.

The school already routinely attends conventions and trade shows around the state aimed at educators who are reminded courses are available for non-traditional students as well as districts in need of assistance.

The hoped for up-tick in Nebraska enrollment may be the only change the teachers will see in the shift of University management of their school.

Teacher Amy Ruisinger (Photo: Bill Kelly/NET News)

Amy Ruisinger teaches English literature online for the Independent Study High School. This is a part-time job she can do at nights and weekends when not teaching English to Seventh Graders in an actual classroom.

When we met recently she quickly opened up her scuffed, white Mac Powerbook, plunked it on a conference table and announced, “Well, here’s my classroom!”

She called up the web page for the online literature course she teaches and quickly maneuvered through a simple home page menu that guides students through each stage of the class. While students study at their own pace, there is the equivalent of a full semesters worth of material.

There is a traditional text book along with online lessons and audio and video elements that mix up the material in an attempt to keep things interesting.

There are opportunities to speak with teachers by way of online audio and text chats. Testing is done online and graded by teachers back at their homes.

Students who think they can plagiarize or have others take their tests for them are cautioned there are methods the school uses, and has used successfully in the past, to detect cheaters.

As the school increasingly markets itself to Nebraska schools some could be skeptical an online course can be as rigorous as intensive classroom instruction,

Ruisinger understands. She started out skeptical back when the school still mailed out paper tests.

“What happens is that they are so responsible and take so much initiative on their own this sometimes proves to be more work than a classroom," Rusinger said. “They can’t work through the answers of another student (and) they have to work through it all themselves. I was skeptical, but I am fully convinced that (students) may actually be doing more work than a traditional classroom at times.”

Joe Bruckler, the hockey player from Massachusetts admits independent study took some getting used to and eventually a change of his personal work habits. There were some significant differences to how he had been learning at his regular high school.

“When you have to start reading a lot more you kind of get stressed out but you get used to it,” Bruckler said. “I think that’s probably what college is like and I think that’s what the goal is: to make you an independent learner.”

Bruckler kept playing hockey and got his diploma after two years. He’s been accepted to West Point Academy in officer training and will play hockey for the Army team.

(Editor’s Note: As a matter of full disclosure, the NET Learning Services unit is currently involved in the Nebraska Virtual Partnership with the Independent Study High School.)