Remember when e-learning was the Internet’s greatest hope for the future? When Zdu.com and Jones International University boasted an egalitarian approach to education that put a classroom in every home? When university presidents began consulting dotcoms for curriculum guidance? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
While myriad dotcoms hit the skids in 2001, e-learning actually hit its stride. In fact, the online-education industry is generating profits, expanding overseas, and generally keeping its vision of e-enlightenment intact. Last year, for example, the University of Phoenix Online, an arm of the largest private U.S. university, saw profits increase 82% to $32 million. America Online launched its first-ever online campus just one month ago. And Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business now offers a “Cross Continent” MBA program that supplements international classroom teaching with distance-learning courses. The 20-month program costs $74,000 and boasts a rigorous application process — students are clamoring to enroll.
Still, e-learning is a rogue concept. Scholars debate the quality and rigor of an online curriculum, startups experiment with unproven teaching methods, and students approach most Web-only institutions with skepticism, fearing an online degree just won’t confer the same status as a brick-and-mortar mortarboard. In the business world, corporate trainers are beginning to reap financial benefits from streamlined e-courses, but no industry standard yet exists.
How can we best train our people using a Web-based curriculum? How can we build relationships online? How can we save money in the long run without cutting corners today? Those are the questions circulating through Motorola, Ford, Hewlett-Packard, and Adams County School District 14 in Commerce City, Colorado.
Adams County, however, is facing a special challenge: It’s trying to make e-learning work for a generally apathetic set of consumers — teenagers — in a generally bleak and neglected establishment: the U.S. public-school system. Yet the high schools in District 14 are making educational and financial headway thanks, in part, to a Nebraska startup called class.com.
Launched at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Division of Continuing Studies, class.com is now an independent entity serving 4,462 high schools in the United States with more than 40 courses that meet the national curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, language arts, and foreign language. In addition to providing American children with education alternatives, class.com is also boosting schools’ tax revenues, widening the reach of exemplary teachers, and gathering valuable data about how people learn online.
“We can do a better job in our schools,” says Katherine Endacott, president and CEO of class.com. “There are dedicated teachers to whom we must give new tools and new solutions so they can reach today’s students.”
Here, Endacott offers a curriculum for e-learning that makes sense beyond high school.
Customize Your Syllabus
Though class.com offers a standard range of courses and lesson plans, it works with each individual high-school client to customize the content for its particular student body, timetable, and staff. (Participating high schools pay class.com for every e-course offered.) It also conducts hands-on training with the teachers who preside over each class.com course.
“We spend a great deal of time tailoring our programs,” Endacott says. “We help teachers understand how to use our e-learning product with their students, and we help them understand what it means to be an online teacher — how to help students learn best and how to support students who are working online.”
This willingness to alter and adapt course content has allowed class.com to capture a diverse range of clients: urban and rural schools serving at-risk, gifted, and returning students with varied needs and expectations.
Class.com sets no age or degree requirements for its students. Prepubescent prodigies and 30-year-old working mothers are equally welcome to take physics and macroeconomics through the online program. In fact, the United Auto Workers has selected class.com to provide high-school core courses to all of its members employed at DaimlerChrysler plants in the United States. Endacott says she hopes that corporate vote of confidence is just the first of many continuing-education initiatives for class.com.
Endacott is most excited, however, by a national trend to recover and reenroll high-school dropouts. Those students, generally uninterested in traditional classroom instruction, are often more willing to enter an e-learning environment where they can set their own schedule. Schools, in turn, receive more state funding for every student enrolled, whether they work from home or from a computer lab on campus.
“All schools are worried about declining state tax revenue,” Endacott says. “They are studying their budgets and finding that if they can keep more kids from dropping out, they qualify for more state support. E-learning is a very interesting option for schools that need to boost their revenues but don’t have the physical space to accommodate more students.”
Learn Every Student’s Name
Students studying civics or algebra through class.com work closely with real teachers employed at real high schools across the country. One instructor presides over each e-learning course offered through a given school. That teacher follows the progress of every enrolled student, answering homework queries, clarifying missed test questions, and offering support and encouragement through the duration of the class. He or she acts as a personal tutor rather than as a chat-room administrator or Webmaster.
“Some students open up more to an online teacher than they would in a traditional classroom, where they feel peers might judge them for their questions and comments,” Endacott says. “We find that online students working one-on-one with high-school teachers ask more questions and engage in more course-related dialogue.”
Automate, Then Educate
The tests and quizzes administered through class.com are graded automatically and returned to students immediately. That means teachers have more time for personal instruction — explaining missed questions and reviewing foggy concepts rather than slogging through a pile of tests.
The idea of spending more time teaching and less time babysitting is wildly popular among many teachers, especially young, idealistic ones who are most willing to give e-teaching a shot. Endacott says that class.com often attracts a district’s most passionate and pioneering teachers — folks who want to make education work again.
“We love working with the best and brightest — the teachers who have a vision and a willingness to experiment with new teaching methods,” she says. “These are the people who are asking, Why not? Why can’t we do things differently?”
Automation also benefits students, who may submit feedback about a course at any time during their instruction. By continually evaluating students’ feedback, teachers can reengineer courses midway through a semester, improving as they go.
Free Your People
The real beauty of e-learning is its flexibility. Restless overachievers can finish biology in three months. Teenage mothers can take the time they need to learn Spanish without falling behind or flunking out. Web-based learning also allows students to interact with teachers more often and more easily. Class.com encourages participating teachers to think beyond the traditional school day, answering course-related email during off-hours when students are most likely sitting down to study.
Online learning also offers schools the freedom to share their most extraordinary teachers with students around the world. “One school may have a master teacher in chemistry who could serve the best and brightest students in many different high schools through online learning,” Endacott says. “E-learning doesn’t bind the talents of any teacher to a particular school, and many times it opens new career paths for teachers who feel trapped in just one school.”
Share Your Notes
Since its inception three years ago, class.com has been gathering data about online learning in secondary schools. It’s been charting the practices of teachers whose students score exceptionally well, gathering feedback from chemistry students across the nation, and figuring out which interfaces work best for online instruction. In two years, class.com hopes to have the largest body of research on online learning in the world.
“If e-learning is going to help students excel, we must know exactly how and why,” Endacott says. “All of us feel a sense of mission to run a responsible business and to serve the needs of teachers across the country, because they are the people who are doing the really important work. They are people who are transforming lives; we’re just helping them along.”
Anni Layne Rodgers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Learn more about class.com on the Web.