Local students get boost in Online Learning Lab

FAIRMONT – At Fairmont High School, there are students learning math, chemistry, poetry, social studies and more, all in the same room at the same time under the supervision of just one teacher.

It is called the Online Learning Lab, and in it students learn at their own pace, working with a program called OdysseyWare.

In its first year at Fairmont, the idea to implement a computerized classroom came as an answer to a question of what to do with students who were not fitting in academically.

“We looked at the needs of the students,” said Principal Kim Niss. “When kids would get behind in credits, we really didn’t have a good answer for them.”

But the program isn’t only for students struggling with their coursework. It is used for credit recovery, remediation and acceleration, in addition to helping students schedule classes they can’t fit in, or that the school doesn’t offer.

Eric Johnson oversees the lab. A licensed teacher who formerly taught social studies, Johnson said the experience for the student isn’t the same as it might be for a student staying at home working with online coursework.

“The difference is there is a teacher in the room that can help,” he said.

Johnson checks in with each student regularly, monitoring the work he or she is doing from his computer.

Students working with remediation or credit recovery are given a pre-test on the subject matter, and the computer only spends time teaching students what they don’t already know. Johnson said the program won’t let a student continue with the work until tests and quizzes are passed at a specified percentage rate.

The reports generated from the students’ work make it clear to Johnson where a student is missing information.

“You can find out pretty quickly what students don’t know,” he said.

When Johnson sees a student struggling with a topic, he intervenes.

“There is a lot of one-on-one with the teacher,” he said.

For Johnson, that means brushing up on topics with which he is less familiar, or getting advice from a teacher in a specific subject on the best way to explain certain topics.

“This morning I spent an hour reminding myself about Punnett squares,” he said, referring to a method of determining the probability of an offspring having a particular genotype.

All the school’s teachers have had the opportunity to review the curriculum used in the software. According to Niss, it is in line with Minnesota state standards.

Johnson said the programs are adaptable to each class as well, although only three weeks into the program’s implementation, not many teachers have utilized this feature.

“What we are doing is just the tip of the iceberg of what we can do with this,” Johnson said.

Students can use the programming outside of the lab as well, as all teachers have access to it in their classrooms.

Chemistry and physics students are using the programming as an online textbook in their classrooms.

In addition to working on topics offered by the high school, the program allows students who want to take classes not offered a chance to do so.

One student takes consumer math, a class formerly offered in the district. Another student, a sixth-grader at the elementary school, is able to take a seventh-grade math class without having to leave the elementary school.

Even with the variety of coursework offered to students, the programming isn’t able to meet all of the student’s needs. Johnson said he assigns students essay questions, which cannot be graded by a computer. And certain experiments in the science classes aren’t easily done virtually.

“What Eric is providing for the kids is feedback,” Niss said. “How do you know how you are doing if you don’t get feedback? That is the disadvantage to just sitting in front of a computer.”

For some students, it is a chance to redeem their grades and save their credits. For others, it is a chance to be challenged by their coursework.

“I think it is an opportunity to close some cracks kids were falling through,” Johnson said.