More options with distance learning
S-GI Teacher John Sopko hosts psychology A and B classes in S-GI’s district learning classroom, teaching students from Dunkirk and Panama high schools, as well as students from S-GI. Springville students can take accounting, Latin, two Holocaust classes and the history of rock ’n roll music by sharing with Falconer, Franklinville, Cheektowaga/Sloan and Dunkirk schools.
If districts cannot afford to maintain classes for just a few students, they may turn to distance learning. Sopko was the first to teach a distance learning course at S-GI and he has been doing so since the equipment was installed. The teacher also works to train other teachers in distance learning instruction over the summer.
“There are cameras in the front and back of the room, four TV monitors in front and back [and] a microphone at each desk, so the room is live audio/video once the scheduled course time begins,” he said. “You definitely need to pace yourself, because once the time expires, there is dead air. It is not for every teaching style or personality. You have to be flexible; students must email about assignments or content questions because they can’t come down and see me.”
Erie 2 Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES provides the distance learning network, directed by Mike Bayba, who has been with the program for about 14 years.
“Portable video conferencing units are changing the way teachers teach and eliminating some costs for districts, like distance learning has done over the years,” he said. “Basically, it’s a box with a computer and high end camera that can plug into any computer drop in the network. It’s like Skype® on a laptop, but with more functions and, while it’s not as crystal clear as distance learning, it’s a great teaching and learning tool.”
Examples are videoconferencing with the Library of Congress and offering those resources to students in their classrooms, accessing those resources while avoiding field trip costs. The portable units are available at S-GI through Erie 2 BOCES.
Bayba said that the biggest hurdle with distance learning is that there is no common bell schedule among Western New York schools, and added that scheduling becomes a challenge, with the worst case scenario being students’ having 20-minute study halls before and after a distance learning class, because it’s in the middle of S-GI class periods.
S-GI Guidance Counselor Mike Criscione has taken on the role of distance learning coordinator for several years and Bayba said that Criscione’s juggling of schedules makes everything fit.
“Distance learning offers us long-standing relationships that work with classes we can count on from year to year. Electives work best for distance learning, but we have also used it for virtual field trips to NASA, Sea World and Broadway Backstage. We can accommodate most small interest classes this way,” Criscione said.
S-GI students can also take courses for college credit via distance learning. Jamestown Community College credit is currently offered to students in principles of financial accounting and principles of managerial accounting, in conjunction with Falconer High School. In the past, sociology and American sign language have also been offered for college credit through distance learning.
“Erie 2 BOCES is light-years beyond in expertise and technology. The annual meeting among all of the distance learning districts gets larger each year with Lake Placid and other districts across New York part of their network,” Criscione said.
Other advantages cited include more flexibility in retaining teachers (part-time classroom and part-time distance learning), combating teacher burn-out and keeping students motivated and interested in their studies.
“Distance learning can only continue to grow, especially with the budget reductions facing most school districts. It is a way to share resources and provide the most cost effective way to provide options to kids. It opens up more possibilities,” Bayba said.