Getting into the groove of virtual learning

Friday, November 2, 2007
Eric Nanney, 10, took a Missouri Virtual Instruction Program pop quiz Thursday at his Marble Hill, Mo., home. His mother, Rose Nanney, rear, said Eric only spends about 25 percent of his study time at the computer. (Photos by Kit Doyle)

Eric Nanney sometimes takes his book outside and completes his classwork laying on a trampoline. Other times he will cozy into a recliner to finish a math assignment. Twice a week he logs on to a computer to talk electronically to his teacher or other fifth-grade students.

Eric Nanney, left, threw leaves at his younger brother, Eran, Thursday morning at their home in Marble Hill, Mo. Their friends, 10-year-olds Eric and Anna Thomsen, center rear, study together once a week because they are both in fifth grade in the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program and share similar subjects.

The Missouri Virtual Instruction Program is still "feeling birthing pains," but parent Rose Nanney is doing her best to work through the kinks. Her son, Eric, is past the midpoint in all his MoVIP semester classes and getting into the groove of learning virtually.

Problems with functioning computer links and textbook availability were worked out in the first two weeks of school. Envelopes for mailing portfolio assignments arrived this month, so Eric could send his assignments in for grading.

"It was real tough at first. But we are getting into a routine now," Nanney said.

Currently about 400 elementary students and 1,400 secondary students are participating in MoVIP's inaugural year. About 700 students have dropped the program; half of those signed up but didn't start classes and half found the program too difficult, according to program director Curt Fuchs.

This month, Gov. Matt Blunt recommended a $1 million increase in MoVIP funding for the next budget. The money would go to expanding the program to include grades six through eight, slated to be in place by the summer of 2008.

The program, run by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is designed for students who wish to take classes their school does not offer, for students who have been expelled or for families wanting to homeschool but needing direction. It is also for students whose medical problems prevent them from attending school, like Eric.

Last year, Nanney's son missed 14 days at Woodland Elementary School in Marble Hill due to asthma attacks. Eric also has a severe peanut allergy, which forced him to eat lunch outside of the cafeteria.

Anna Thomsen, 10, read about national parks in the southwest United States on Thursday while studying her Missouri Virtual Instruction Program social studies coursework at the Nanney household in Marble Hill, Mo.

"If he was going to be that excluded, he might as well be at home," Nanney said.

Nanney tried homeschooling Eric in kindergarten and first grade but had a hard time coordinating material. At Woodland Elementary, however, she wished a foreign language was offered, that less time was spent on test preparation and that her son would receive more personal attention.

She now has the flexibility to take him outside to see the changing leaves or visit a lake. Wednesday she and Eric traveled to Beggs Pumpkin Patch near Blodgett, Mo., for a field trip.

When she initially signed up for the program, she imagined Eric sitting in front of the computer all day. In reality, he only spends about 25 percent of his time online.

The other 75 percent is spent reading novels, completing science experiments, researching for social studies reports or computing math problems on paper.

When he does get online, it is to complete short quizzes, submit test answers or watch animated lessons. There are also online videos and games that are part of his lessons.

"You can do it at your own pace and finish it faster. I get done around 1 or 12:30," Eric said.

Nanney can choose her son's schedule to meet her needs. On Fridays, for example, Eric completes one English lesson and one science lesson. He doubles up on math on Mondays and social studies on Wednesdays.

Just a short time after playing outside Thursday morning, Eric Nanney, right, read "The Sign of the Beaver" for his Missouri Virtual Instruction Program curriculum while brother Eran, 3, played a Spider-Man video game.

Joanna Thomsen has three children enrolled in MoVIP and she frequently collaborates with Nanney. But she schedules her days differently, in a block schedule. Her children take math and Spanish every day, but then complete all of their social studies lessons on one day and all of their science lessons on another. Two days are spent on English.

By 10:30 a.m., Thomsen said, her children were almost done with their work for the day.

"If they're not done with their lessons by noon, it's like pulling teeth," she said.

Because her children are taking Spanish every day, their semester is almost complete. She estimates they will finish all their subjects for the year by the end of March.

"But we start our day at 6," she said.

The state requires students log 1,000 hours a year, which translates into a school year that's a few weeks shorter than the schedule of area schools. Of those 1,000 hours, 600 must be in the core subjects. Each day Thomsen and Nanney must enter the number of hours spent on schoolwork.

Even though the students are finishing early, both parents and children said the work is more challenging than public school.

"You have to write more. I don't like doing it, but you have to write paragraphs for everything to show you understand. It's hard work," fifth-grader Anna Thomsen said.

The Thomsen children take their tests and quizzes directly after completing their lessons.

"When you save the quiz until the next day, they've lost it," Thomsen said.

She doesn't worry about retention she said, because the curriculum is designed to spiral upward, where lessons build on each other.

The Thomsen children attend Woodland Elementary for art, music and physical education classes.

"I tried that with Eric, but that was too much interruption for us," Nanney said.

Full-time MoVIP high school students cannot participate in extracurricular activities at their local school because of Missouri State High School Athletic Association rules.

At the high school level, 93 percent of students are enrolled part time. The figure is 66 percent at the elementary level.

Because the program has rolling enrollment, Fuchs said, he has new students signing up every day. "I am mentally prepared that in January we will receive an onslaught of children who need to pick up a credit," he said.

Courses cost about $375 per semester, and 2,500 state-funded semester courses are still available.

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